Views: Lowering age requirement for kindergarten will help kids

A bill that would directly affect families with children who turn 5 by the 2020-21 school year has cleared the Senate and currently is under consideration by the House. If Senate Bill 2075 passes, all children in Illinois who turned age 5 by May 31 would be required to enter kindergarten in the fall, and schools would be required to provide kindergarten to all 5-year-olds.

Under current law, Illinois parents can choose whether their child enters kindergarten at age 5 or age 6. Like a basketball coach with a promising but immature player, some parents do exercise this choice, “redshirting” their child from kindergarten even though they are age-eligible.

How could removing discretion from parents, who know their child best, be better for children and families? First, most redshirting parents have children whose birthdays are close to Sept. 1.

This is why they believe their child is “too young” for kindergarten. It’s key to note that the bill ensures that those parents wanting most to redshirt can continue to exercise their choice, by moving up the date by which the child must turn 5 from Sept. 1 to May 31.

Second, extensive research on the topic of schooling and children’s development, including my own, indicates that concerns about this bill are greatly exaggerated, and the legislation has many positives for children that are being overlooked.

A fundamental question is whether 5 is too young to enter kindergarten. Research shows that young children who are not in stimulating environments prior to school entry are better off starting school earlier. The time they are spending out of school is just not that productive for their development.

Studies also indicate that the benefits of redshirting are likely oversold. Although it may assuage parents’ anxieties in the short run, red-shirting does not give children a lasting advantage, in academic performance or social and emotional development, over their peers.

Coupled with Illinois’ school-leaving age of 17, a requirement to go into school at age 5 extends the minimum required schooling by a year.

A large body of research says that this reduces high school dropout.

A person at-risk of dropout who turns 17 their senior year will find it easier to make it to graduation than if they turn 17 in their junior year. There is even evidence that this impact extends to college enrollment.

Because young people will be younger when they graduate from high school, college or post-college education, many will gain an extra year of experience and earnings in the job market.

Parents are people, too. They already face great demands on their time and energy. Will they be more stressed? My research suggests that the average parent will provide the additional positive support that their 5-year-old kindergartner needs to navigate their early school years, and these changes will not be stressful for the parent.

It is true that some parents may be affected differently.

Parents of boys and first-born and only children going into kindergarten at age 5 should brace themselves for a little more conflict around the house during the elementary school years. But single mothers – who are often strapped for time as well as money for child care – may reasonably expect reduced stress.

Some children will be in school longer, and providing that additional education will be more expensive. However, the social costs of dropout are much greater than this out-of-pocket cost, and the gains accumulated throughout life will ultimately increase the earnings of the next generation of tax-paying workers.

• Elizabeth T. Powers is an associate professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a member of the Education group at the University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs.