Wednesday, April 17, 2013

House considers issues involving early childhood education

By Meredith Colias

The Illinois House today considered legislation that could shape the early childhood education of some students in the state.

The chamber approved House Bill 2762, which would require children to start school if they are going to turn 7 any time during the school year. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sue Scherer, a Decatur Democrat, said clarifying the starting time for school-age children would help elementary schools enforce truancy laws in cases where parents take advantage of the fact that the state technically does not require their soon-to-be 7-year-old child to attend school. Scherer said parents sometimes tell truancy officers that  their children are not “really truant.”

Opponents of the bill said a parent should have the final say about when they believe their child is ready to attend school. “At this point in the child’s life, the parent can make a very wise decision based upon what they know on the maturity of the child,” said Rep. Mike Bost, a Murphysboro Republican. Bost said the measure is “forcing the situation where we, the state, feel that we are better than the parents themselves.” Scherer said the cost of the change would be difficult to estimate because it is uncertain how many affected children are not attending school. “There’s just no way of knowing until we actually we do it,” she said. Senate Bill 1307, which would move the school age from 7 to 5, could also soon come up for a vote in that chamber.

A House committee today considered the pros and cons of requiring kindergarten for all school-age children. House Bill 2405 would require all districts to provide kindergarten classes for the entire school day. More than 85 percent of school districts already offer full-day kindergarten classes to students, according to the Illinois Federation of Teachers. Paula Corrigan-Halpern from Voices for Illinois Children said that because the Common Core curriculum being introduced in Illinois schools will require children to show a broader array of learning as they progress, it is important for them to be better academically prepared early on. “There are going to be skills that kids have to master in kindergarten,” she said.

Low-income and disadvantaged children would potentially benefit the most from the proposal because they tend to be most affected academically if they do not start school at an early age. They can enter school less ready to begin subjects such as reading and math because they typically have lower vocabularies and less developed cognitive skills than their peers from higher-income homes. Better-educated parents are usually more prepared to know how to encourage their children’s early cognitive development, giving them an academic advantage when they actually enter school. The State Board of Education (ISBE) estimates that 49 percent of Illinois students live in poverty, according to a recent analysis.

 A main issue with the proposal for full-day kindergarten is the potential cost. An ISBE spokeswoman said the board does not have an estimate on the cost of extending full-time kindergarten statewide, although she said the money to implement it would potentially come from General State Aid. Laura Farr of Chicago Public Schools, which is beginning a similar initiative, estimated the citywide program would cost about $15 million and affect 30,700 children. Farr said providing early childhood education is “an essential part of getting kids a learning base.”

Mike Chamness of the Illinois Association of School Administrators said the decision to offer kindergarten classes should rest with local districts. Because the state is prorating General State Aid further from 89 percent in FY2013 to 82 percent in FY2014, he said districts could not afford to pick up the cost. “There are a lot of good ideas out there, and those good ideas cost money,” he said. Chamness said districts are already struggling with how to deal with budget cuts from the state, and many are in the process of cutting further programs and potentially laying off staff. “It’s like holding a dam: You plug a hole and another one bursts open,” he said. “That’s what local districts are facing right now.”

The committee chairwoman, Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat, said she supports the idea, but said lawmakers would have to resolve the money question. “It’s almost child abuse if we don’t do it,” she said. “It’s just a question of money.”


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