Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children
Photo: Caroline Silber for Strategies for Children

This summer Illinois lowered the mandatory age that its children have to start school – raising the perennial question: When is it best for children to enroll? Because this policy is determined at the state level, mandatory school age varies considerably across the nation from age five to age eight.

Faced with troubling absenteeism in the early grades that hurt children’s success, Illinois updated its policy.

“To combat a truancy crisis that reaches into the earliest grades, Gov. Pat Quinn on Sunday signed into law a measure that lowers Illinois’ compulsory attendance age to six from seven starting in the fall of 2014,” according to an August 25th article in the Chicago Tribune, which adds, “The new law was sparked by a Tribune investigation in November that analyzed Chicago’s internal attendance database and found nearly 18 percent of the city’s kindergartners and first-graders were classified as chronic truants.”

According to a press release from Governor Quinn’s office, “Research shows that children who start school at an earlier age are less likely to drop out of school, be placed in special education or commit crimes, and more likely to attend college.”

The Tribune explains: “Also in response to the Tribune investigation, state lawmakers proposed a task force that includes top state and city officials to craft solutions for Chicago’s early grades absenteeism.” As a report from Catalyst Chicago, an independent newsmagazine, points out, there are strategies that can help improve attendance.

The impact of Illinois’ new law is also being felt in Indiana where Tony Walker, a member of the state’s Board of Education periodically raises the issue.

“I think kindergarten is not optional anymore,” Walker told NPR’s StateImpact. “It’s actually required in order to set the foundation for the kind of student performance we want in later years.”

Indiana is one of 14 states where students are not required to attend school until age seven, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Glenda Ritz, Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, told StateImpact, “So when we get a young child in first grade that has not been to kindergarten, and has not been to preschool, then they are two years behind being successful as a first grader.” She adds, “Typically, and rightly so, that youngster is normally put back in kindergarten to get the basics, to even know the letters.” These children, she says, are behind when they have to take the state’s third grade reading test, which is a requirement for entry into fourth grade.

Other states rules vary widely. StateImpact says, “Eight states and the District of Columbia require students start school even sooner, at five. In only two states — Washington and Pennsylvania — is the compulsory attendance age eight.”

Massachusetts is part of a group of states with a minimum compulsory school age of six years old. Consequently, many Massachusetts children show up at school as first-timers who may not have had any prior preschool experience at ages three, four or five. These are critical years when children in high-quality learning environments experience the cognitive and social/emotional development that can help them succeed in school.

Cost is a factor in lowering the required school attendance age, since schools could have to spend more to serve more children. Although as the Tribune reports, “School finance experts and officials from other states that lowered their compulsory age have said the cost has been minimal because most families enroll their children in kindergarten — so the schools are providing desks and services whether the students attend regularly or not.”

For Walker, the Indiana Board of Education member, the more dangerous cost is not educating his state’s five- and six-year-olds. He tells StateImpact, “The arguments about funding and financing just pale in comparison to the benefit that would be added to the performance of our kids.”