CHICAGO — Sometimes parents send their kids to kindergarten at the relatively advanced age of 6 because they hope their children will enjoy an athletic or academic advantage over younger classmates. Sometimes the goal simply is to give a child who is lagging developmentally a chance to catch up.
Now this popular practice — sometimes called academic redshirting — is under threat in Illinois, with legislators considering a bill that says children must start kindergarten by age 5 instead of 6. The proposed law requires that children attend kindergarten if they are 5 on or before May 31, but would allow parents of 5-year-olds with summer birthdays to choose whether to send them to kindergarten or wait an additional year.
Supporters say the bill would help disadvantaged children by assuring that they get early access to education.
"I think that we can all understand that the first years of life are critical for social, emotional and cognitive development," said state Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, who is sponsoring the bill in the Illinois House. It already has passed in the Senate. "This is really aimed at closing the achievement gap for children, which eventually becomes, unfortunately, the wage gap and the quality of life gap and, way too often, the life expectancy gap."
But opponents, including parents who have been airing their concerns on Facebook in recent days, say that redshirting can help kids who are developing at a slower rate than their peers.
"This needs to be a parental choice, and the state should not be mandating it," said Alexandra Eidenberg, founder of the Chicago women's and children's rights lobbying organization We Will, and the mother of four children, including 5-year-old twins who attend Romona Elementary School in Wilmette.
Eidenberg said members of her group are "extremely" opposed to the bill, which, if passed, would go into effect in the 2020-2021 school year.
Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee said the bill comes at a time when the trend is to send kids to school later, not earlier. While the literature on the results is mixed, he said, there is a potential advantage for some kids, particularly boys and children who are less mature and less capable of self-control.
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"I'm concerned about a statewide push to require all 5-year-olds to be in kindergarten," Dee said.
"For some kids, you might see an improvement, if they're not in a developmentally right setting, but for other kids, it could be harmful."
A 2017 study in the journal Education Next found that redshirting offers a short-term advantage that diminishes over time. A 1997 study co-authored by pediatrician Robert S. Byrd found that teenagers who were older than their classmates because they had started school late were actually more likely to have behavioral problems than kids who had started on time.
But a high-profile 2015 study co-authored by Dee found that children who started kindergarten later showed lower levels of inattention and hyperactivity -- and that they continued to show benefits at age 11.
Another concern about the bill, voiced by Facebook commentators in a forum for suburban parents, is that it moves the cutoff birth date to May 31 from Sept. 1, which could mean that 5-year-olds with summer birthdays would have to wait until they are 6 to attend kindergarten.
But Buckner said the intention of the bill is to allow parents of kids with summer birthdays to choose whether to send kids to kindergarten at age 5 or hold them back a year. He said the language of the bill may be tweaked to make that more clear.
In addition, the Accelerated Placement Act, which went into effect last summer, requires schools to have policies in place for advancing academically gifted kids, including kids who would benefit from entering kindergarten at an early age.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education said via email that the department understands that some districts needed more time to put accelerated placement policies in place, including Chicago Public Schools. Chicago is expected to have a policy in place by the upcoming school year, the spokeswoman said.
The bill now under consideration applies to both public and private school students.
As for parents who say the bill diminishes their ability to make educational choices for their kids, Buckner said he respects their position.
"People are just beginning to ramp up and talk about it now," he said of the bill. "And I'm happy to have those conversations."