Proposed school start age could put Illinois among the earliest in the country

A new Illinois Senate bill would have Illinois join a small number of states – only 9 – that have a mandatory school attendance age as low as 5.


Current Illinois law says students don’t have to start school until age 7, the age of most second graders.

Teachers and principals said this age gap reflects knowledge gaps in the classroom.

“There were pretty big holes between kids who started early and kids who stayed home,” said Ryan Rosenfeld, a learning resource teacher in Chicago who works with students aged 6 to 14.

In addition to the education gaps that emerge early on, there are other benefits to starting education early.

“There’s quite a bit of research that shows there are longer term benefits,” said Jason T. Downer, a professor at the University of Virginia, who focuses on kindergarten readiness.

“In particular, kids coming from less resourced homes who start early are exposed to educational materials such as books,” Downer said, “there is also a sense of enriching their social experience, including establishing relationships with teachers.”

As more research is released establishing implications of early education, many states have moved to lower the compulsory age for students to attend school.

Colorado and Connecticut both lowered their compulsory ages in 2007 and 2005, respectively. Last year Alabama approved a state law to lower their compulsory age from 7 to 6, establishing the lower age for the 2012-13 school year.

Nevada, like Illinois, has legislation in the state Senate to lower this mandatory age from 7 to 5. The bill is similar to SB1307 and boasts similar arguments.

“We believe this bill will renew our focus on early education,” said Melinda Malone, a spokeswoman for the Clark County School District. “The earlier you start, the better you are. The better the students do in first and second grade.”

The most vocal opponents to the proposed laws are homeschoolers, both in Illinois and in Nevada. They believe mandating a lower starting age will force kids who aren’t yet ready for school to attend.

“If the law changes, children will start too early,” said Frank Schnorbus, a lobbyist for homeschooling in Nevada. “As soon as they can get them in school, parents will put their kids in, ready or not.”

Twenty-five states have a mandatory starting age of 6. So why did Illinois opt for age 5 instead of age 6?

“Students are enrolling in preschool from 3-4,” said Jim Reed, director of gGovernment Relations at the Illinois Education Association. “Why have them sit out for a year? Why not go right into a kindergarten program.”

Opponents of the proposed law say there will be increased costs associated with educating more children. But in a February interview on WBEZ, Illinois Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), who sponsored the bill, discussed how costs aren’t a big part of the initiative.

“You’re just telling more kids to come to school – so there is not a big cost,” Lightford said.

Alabama also saw minimal costs as a consequence of lowering the compulsory age last fall.

“We feel that changing the state law is good public policy,” Reed said. “The longer we have them in school, the earlier we start them, the better off they are.”

The Illinois bill is on hold while Lightford is on medical leave. According to her staff, she will be back at the end of the month to oversee the bill’s path for the last month of the state Senate session.

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