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EDITORIAL: Don’t ‘redshirt’ 5-year-olds out of kindergarten

In this 2014 file photo, kindergarten teacher Mary Elizabeth Duffy reads a story to her class at Seventh Avenue School in La Grange. A bill in Springfield would lower the kindergarten age to 5. | Jane Michaels/Sun-Times Media file photo

When should a child start school?

Back in 2013, the Illinois Legislature lowered the compulsory age for children to attend school from 7 to 6. But that was a compromise.

Lawmakers back then couldn’t see their way to approving a more ambitious proposal by state Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford, D-Maywood, to lower the age to 5.

“Children who start school late struggle to keep up with their peers,” Lightford said at the time. “Many of them start first or second grade without basic reading and math skills. They get discouraged because everyone else is so far ahead of them. … We’re doing these children a disservice if we don’t make every effort to make sure they get the education they’ll need to succeed as adults.”

Lightford’s proposal has re-emerged, and this time legislators ought to get firmly behind it. The state Senate did its job earlier this month by passing SB 2075, a bill that sets the age for kindergarten attendance at 5 and effectively would end the practice of “redshirting,” or holding prospective kindergartners out of school for a year to allow them an extra year to mature.

The House should follow suit and pass the bill as well. It’s a smart move that would make sure every child gets started as early as possible on a good education.

“We’re looking at this as an investment,” state Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, a co-sponsor of the House bill, told us. “Since the [attendance] age was lowered to 6, the data and analyses show children are performing better. It’s better to start [school] earlier.”

Proponents of the bill rightly are focused on closing an achievement gap by getting lower-income children into school as early as possible. But some parents fear the end of redshirting, even if they shouldn’t. Research overall shows that any benefits gained by holding a child out of school for a year tend to be fleeting.

It’s unclear how widespread redshirting is in Illinois. The Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t track the practice, though educators say it is a small but growing phenomenon.

We’re sympathetic to the concerns of parents who sincerely believe their child is not mature enough for formal schooling. A child who turns 5 in August is more than a half-year behind a child who turned 5 in January. Children can change a lot, both physically and emotionally, in a half-year or more.

But every state in the union since 1918 has made schooling compulsory, taking the view that a democracy works best when every citizen is educated. And 11 states already set the compulsory age at 5. Illinois would not be outside the norm.

As a report in the journal Education Next bluntly concludes, “Redshirting is generally not worth it.” The co-authors, including Northwestern University labor economist and education expert Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, note two major studies that found any advantage “declines sharply as children move through the school grades.”

“The child’s skill level in April, when the redshirting decision is often made, is a poor predictor of what his skills will be in September or October, when the school year is underway. Children’s development is highly uneven, with bursts of improvement in language, fine motor skills, and other capacities coming somewhat unpredictably,” the authors wrote.

In other words: Yes, children change a lot — which means that six-month head start one child has over a younger classmate can evaporate in a short time.

Buckner also points out that the bill will still give some parents the option of holding their child out of kindergarten for a year, if their child has a summer birthday.

Early childhood education often is credited, in part, with the significant gains in learning made in many cities, including Chicago. Requiring that children begin kindergarten at 5 is consistent with this sensible goal.

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