SPRINGFIELD – State Senator Kimberly A. Lightford (D-Maywood) believes that for children to succeed, they need to start school by the age of 5.
"Children who start school later struggle to keep up with their peers," Lightford said. "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. That's not fair to them, their teachers or their parents."
Lightford's proposal, Senate Bill 1307, lowers Illinois' compulsory education age from 7 to 5 – a move strongly supported by Illinois teachers. Her plan cleared the Senate Education Committee earlier today and now moves to the full Senate.
Illinois is one of 14 states that do not require children to attend school until they turn 7. Two other states start at the age of 8. However, most states require children to go to school starting at age 5 or 6.
According to a Chicago Tribune report, nearly 18 percent of Chicago kindergartners and first-graders were chronic truants during the 2010-11 school year, missing nine or more days without a valid excuse.
"Right now, there's nothing we can do when 5 and 6-year-olds don't attend school," said Lightford, the vice-chair of the Education Committee. "And at that age, it's not the kids' fault – it's the parents'. 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."
Under Illinois law, child truants do not face any penalties – their parents do. A parent who doesn't make every effort to make sure their children are at school can face up to 30 days in jail or a $1,500 fine, though the courts rarely impose such severe penalties.
Lightford added that the cost to the state should be minimal compared to the overall education budget. Most children ages 5 to 7 already attend school.
"It's a sad fact that Illinois' education budget is too low," Lightford said. "We can't afford huge new education programs, but lowering the school age is a low-cost change that should produce big results for many of the state's most disadvantaged students."