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Bill To Raise Kindergarten Starting Age Revived

Measure Also Would Require Preschool, But Not Take Effect For Two Or Three Years

Grace E. Merritt

April 14, 2011

The co-chairmen of the legislature's education committee have quietly resurrected a bill to raise the starting age for kindergarten in Connecticut, but this time schools would be required to provide preschool for thousands of 4-year-olds affected by the change.

The new bill also would require the poorest school districts and schools to provide preschool for all 4-year-olds and, possibly, 3-year-olds.

State education officials estimate both measures combined would affect about 16,000 children statewide and cost at least $118 million.

The measures would not kick in for two or three years, when proponents said they hope the state will be better able to shoulder the cost.

Critics say that although the proposals have merit, they will cost the state or local school districts money sooner or later. They question the wisdom of passing expensive public policy, then simply postponing it if the money isn't there.

Both measures are designed to close the achievement gap and ensure that kindergarten classes have less of an age spread, fostering more effective, targeted lessons.

Under the kindergarten proposal, children would need to be age 5 by Oct. 1 to be eligible to enroll. That is three months earlier than the current Jan. 1 deadline.

The bill also requires poor urban school districts and suburban schools in low-income neighborhoods to provide preschool and full-day kindergarten by the 2013-14 school year. This would affect about 9,700 children and carry a $78 million price tag, state education officials said.

The kindergarten proposal requires schools to provide preschool slots for children who turn 5 in October, November and December of the 2015-16 school year, regardless of income level. State education officials said this would affect 6,700 students statewide and cost at least $40 million.

"This is a major, major group of kids and would go a long way toward addressing the achievement gap," said state department of education spokesman Tom Murphy.

The state has expanded the number of preschool slots available to low-income students over the past several years, but progress has slowed because existing preschool centers reached a saturation point and could not expand further.

A similar kindergarten proposal died last month in the legislature's education committee in response to criticism that it would hurt poor children who could not afford to attend preschool.

Two weeks later, the education committee chairmen —Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, and Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Norwich — inserted the new wording into a bill on closing the achievement gap.

Fleischmann said he wanted to raise the kindergarten age, but only if it included the preschool component.

"My concern was that we not create a situation where there are any children in Connecticut who are turned aside from kindergarten due to their birthday or because their family can't afford preschool," Fleischmann said. "You would essentially be denying a full year of access to a structured, educational environment."

Fleischmann and Stillman purposefully set later deadlines to implement the kindergarten and preschool measures, anticipating that the state would be able to pay for them in the future.

"Certainly my hope is we will be in better fiscal shape by then," Stillman said. "Just because we have fiscal problems now doesn't mean we can't plan for the future."

Fleischmann said that if the state can't meet the time frame, "My stance is that it's a worthy goal and we might have to push back the goal."

Critics, however, say such a tack fosters public distrust of politicians.

"It's a great idea: to be able to say, 'Don't worry because we are going to have preschool,'" said state Rep. Lawrence R. Cafero, R-Norwalk. "It sounds great. But who's gonna pay for it? We're gonna make that promise now and pull it away in three years? It's not right."

The state faces a similar quandary now with the high school reforms, which were enacted last May. At that time, Fleischmann and other legislators banked on winning the federal Race to the Top competition to pay for the tougher curriculum measure. But the state didn't get any money and now faces budget problems. As a result, Fleischmann has proposed postponing the reforms for two years.

Fleischmann, however, is hopeful about the new proposal, adding that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is a proponent of early education and brought universal preschool to Stamford as mayor.

"Hopefully we will be able to head down that path," Fleischmann said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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