To combat a truancy crisis that reaches into the earliest grades, Gov. Pat Quinn on Sunday signed into law a measure that lowers Illinois' compulsory attendance age to 6 from 7 starting in the fall of 2014.
"Too many kids are missing school and missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime. We want to change that," Quinn said at a signing ceremony at Nash Elementary School, 4837 W. Erie St. on Chicago's West Side. "They have to be in the school, safe and sound, and learning."
The new law was sparked by a Tribune investigation in November that analyzed Chicago's internal attendance database and found nearly 18 percent of the city's kindergartners and first-graders were classified as chronic truants.
While officials for years have published upbeat attendance statistics, roughly 32,000 CPS elementary students — or 1 in 8 — missed at least four weeks of classes that year, data show, and thousands more simply vanished from the rolls. The missed days were particularly common among African-American youths and children with disabilities, the Tribune showed.
"Children for too long have been coming into school for the first time at age 7, and we have to start them in first or second grade," said Nash principal Dr. Tresa Dunbar, who attended the signing ceremony. The new law "is going to be the best thing the legislature has done in a long time. It is absolutely critical."
Watching the ceremony, Nash special education instructor Thomas Harris observed that Chicago elementary schools still have few if any truancy officers or resources to contact families and retrieve missing youths.
"Enforcing the law will be difficult, but at least it's on the books," Harris said. "The earlier we can get them in, the more returns we'll reap further down the line."
Harris' colleague, preschool teacher Katrina Beltran, said the law would help her convey the importance of school to parents. "Hopefully, this will motivate them," Beltran said.
Illinois is one of 14 states where the minimum school age was set at 7, while two other states require attendance at 8. The minimum compulsory attendance age is 6 in 26 states. It is 5 in the remaining eight states and the District of Columbia.
The effort to lower the mandatory school age was supported by the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union.
The bill passed its final hurdle in the state Senate almost entirely along party lines after a debate in which GOP opponents said the measure would infringe on parental rights and warned of the potential cost.
School finance experts and officials from other states that lowered their compulsory age have said the cost has been minimal because most families enroll their children in kindergarten — so the schools are providing desks and services whether the students attend regularly or not.
Also in response to the Tribune investigation, state lawmakers proposed a task force that includes top state and city officials to craft solutions for Chicago's early grades absenteeism.
In remarks after the ceremony Sunday, Quinn said he has not yet announced appointments to that task force but expected to get it running by the end of September.
"We really have to identify the reasons children are not coming to school. ... We want the task force to look at the evidence," Quinn said. "I am going to work with the task force."