New CT law requires kids be 5 before kindergarten

When deciding whether or not to send her son to kindergarten at age 4, Kelly Hicks said she was on the fence.

A new law chose for her.

“I was going to see where his development was at the end of his next preschool year, and see if he was ready to go to kindergarten, but this just made the decision for me,” Hicks said.

Four-year-olds will no longer be allowed to automatically enroll in kindergarten under a new Connecticut law that has split parents, educators and policymakers over the developmental benefits of starting kindergarten at age 5 versus the financial burdens of paying for an extra year of child care.

“It’s not always an easy cut and dry decision. I know a lot of families, including myself, would rather give our kids some extra time so that they’re developmentally ready to go into kindergarten. But a lot of times the cost is the issue — that’s what makes the decision for us,” Hicks said. “The decision is already made and I feel like it’s the best for him, I just hope that there is an option — an affordable option — for him to have an extra year of preschool.”

Starting with the 2024-2025 school year, incoming kindergarteners must have turned 5 years old by Sept. 1. Children whose fifth birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Jan. 1 may only enter kindergarten if parents submit a written request to the school’s principal and the principal concludes after an assessment that admitting the child into kindergarten is developmentally appropriate.

Previously, children could enroll in kindergarten as long as they turned 5 by Jan. 1.

The law brings Connecticut into accord with the rest of the United States, which have enrollment cutoffs ranging from Aug. 1 to Oct. 15.

Using state enrollment data, the Office of Early Childhood estimated that students who turned 5 between Sept. 2 and Jan. 1 make up approximately one-third of kindergarteners, or 11,500 students in the 2022-2023 class.

Next year, the OEC anticipates that the new law will reduce kindergarten enrollment numbers by 9,000.

In a statement to the Courant Friday, the Connecticut State Department of Education said staff are anticipating a potential “temporary reduction in student enrollment due to the shift in the cutoff date,” and will monitor annual enrollment data closely.

“The exact extent of this impact will depend on various factors, including birth rates, and the responses of parents and districts to the revised guidelines. These factors can also impact class sizes as will local staffing levels,” CSDE Spokesperson Eric Scoville said. “The CSDE will be working closely with school districts and other educational stakeholders to facilitate the implementation of the new cutoff date. This involves providing guidance and resources to assist schools in adapting their enrollment processes and accommodating the changes effectively.”

Scoville said the CSDE is working in coordination with the OEC and will issue initial guidance to superintendents “in the near future.”

The General Assembly’s decision to implement the new start age countered the recommendations of both the CSDE and OEC commissioners who urged the Connecticut General Assembly to not pass the new cutoff date until Connecticut established universal preschool and increased investments in pre-kindergarten and child care programs.

According to the annual Kids Count report released last month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the cost of child care in Connecticut exceeds the national average, costing families an average of $18,156 per child per year at day care centers and $11,955 annually for home-based care.

As costs continue to burden families, the child care industry in Connecticut has sounded the alarm over a staffing shortage that they say is at crisis levels. In March, child care leaders estimated a total of 4,400 open positions and 760 closed classrooms in Connecticut, leaving 22,000 children without a spot and causing waitlists at many day care centers to grow to nine to 12 months long.

But Kate Dias, the president of the Connecticut Education Association, said the problems in child care and kindergarten must be addressed separately.

“We have to differentiate those issues. Kindergarten is not a child care center. Kindergarten is an academic program that this state has developed a curricular expectation for. And so if we have a child care need or we have a preschool need, that needs to be met with child care and preschool, not by prematurely putting children in school because we don’t know what else to do,” Dias said. “It doesn’t solve the problem by putting them into an academic setting before they’re prepared to be there.”

Dias said that the curriculum requirements for kindergarten have expanded dramatically with students being expected to read, complete writing prompts, learn math and sequencing, as well as problem solving and collaboration skills.

“For the last 10 years we’ve been having this conversation with a growing intensity as the expectations of kindergarten have expanded,” Dias said. “We really started to, as educators, see this disconnect occurring in the classroom where the children in the lowest ages, these 4-and-a-half year-olds were really struggling.”

Dias said teachers often saw their September through December students arrive developmentally unprepared for the classroom. As a result, they would struggle, grow frustrated and uncomfortable, act out or shut down, and begin their academic journey already a step behind.

Under the new law, Dias said that Connecticut can align its kindergarten expectations to age-appropriate behaviors.

“It’s about being able to build programs where children can be successful,” Dias said. “If you’ve met a kindergarten teacher, there is truly nothing more devastating to them than having a student who feels sad and overwhelmed by kindergarten. They want those children to be excited, happy, joyful, to really set a foundation that school is a place we want to be. So I think for my kindergarten teachers, I’ve heard an overwhelming, resounding, ‘Thank goodness we’re doing this because it’s better for kids.’”

OEC Commissioner Beth Bye said that she fears the new cutoff will have an undue impact on students with disabilities and Connecticut families who can not afford preschool or access transportation.

“You’ve got a cohort of about 9,000 kids now who will not go to kindergarten because of when their birthday falls. They’ll go a year later … 30% of those kids have no preschool experience,” Bye said. “Now those kids are 5-and-a-half instead of 4-and-a-half when they enter school. And we know that the early years are super important, brain development in the first 5 years is very rapid … we know those early years are important for building executive function skills, learning to socialize, all those things that help you throughout your career in school. … So for kids who can’t access preschool, this means, for a third of those kids, it’s a whole other year with nothing.”

Bye said that she hopes the new law will turn lawmakers’ eyes to these challenges and reignite conversations about universal preschool and early childhood funding.

One of her immediate concerns is that the year-long phase-in is not enough time for parents, preschools and districts to plan for the change.

“If it was planned for two years out, this would be much easier because families would be able to plan this better and schools would be able to plan,” Bye said. “Public schools who have preschoolers entering in the fall will have those kids for three years, not two years. So there could be expenses with the kids and also space constraints … a year is not a long time to figure it out.”

“We’re all going to work our best to make this work,” Bye said. “But I am concerned about the families of young children with disabilities so I think we’ve got to look at that problem with the state Department of Education.”