Illinois children would have to be in school at age 6 instead of 7 starting in September 2014 under a bill that cleared the legislature Thursday in Springfield, giving education officials a tool to fight a truancy crisis that reaches into the earliest grades.
If signed by Gov. Pat Quinn, who said he supports the measure, the law would put Illinois on par with the majority of states.
The proposed legislation came in response to a November Tribune investigation that found nearly 18 percent of Chicago kindergartners and first-graders were classified as chronic truants during the 2010-11 school year because they racked up nine or more days of unexcused absences.
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, while thousands more simply vanished from the rolls. The missed days were particularly common among African-American youths and children with disabilities, the Tribune showed.
"We took another step forward today in our mission to ensure that every child is prepared to succeed in Illinois," Quinn said in a statement Thursday. "Getting students through the doors at age 6 is an investment in their future. ... This legislation will provide our youngest learners with a solid foundation to achieve not only in primary and secondary school, but also in college, career and beyond."
Illinois is one of 14 states where the bar is set at age 7, while two other states require attendance at 8, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan research group.
The minimum compulsory attendance age is 6 in 26 states. It is 5 in the remaining eight states and the District of Columbia.
In a rare show of unity, the bill to lower the mandatory school age was supported by the Chicago Public Schools, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union.
"How can a child who doesn't even start school until the age of 7 ever catch up on her reading and math skills?" asked the bill's chief sponsor, Maywood Democratic state Sen. Kimberly Lightford. "It becomes an injustice. It's unfortunate that we have kids who come out of low-income communities whose parents don't understand the importance of an education."
An earlier version of the bill required children to start school at age 5, but after talking to parents and educators, Lightford agreed that some children might not be mature enough until age 6.
The bill passed its final hurdle in the state Senate almost entirely along party lines after a debate in which Republican 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 of doing so is minimal because most families already enroll their children in kindergarten — so the schools are providing desks and services whether the students attend regularly or not.
Rep. La Shawn Ford, a Chicago Democrat, pushed the bill through the state House this week by arguing that increased enrollment would attract additional federal dollars. The failure to enroll is said to be highest among impoverished students who qualify for certain federal funds.
"It took a fight," Ford told the Tribune. "The best we can give to the state is education for future generations."
The bill does not specify where 6-year-olds must begin school, and private institutions, parochial settings and home schooling are equally valid choices, Lightford said during floor debate Thursday. "I just want kids learning by 6. If they're home-schooled, I applaud their parents for being able to take on such a task."
Tribune reporter Rafael Guerrero contributed from Springfield.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun