Both bills have passed out of their respective Education committees and await a full debate and vote.

David E. Smith, who home-schools his children and serves as executive director of the Illinois Family Institute, a Christian-based advocacy group, said the state should not usurp parents' rights to direct the education of their children.

"Why does some bureaucrat in Springfield think they know what's best for my child? They don't," Smith said. "A lot of kids are not ready at 5 years old to be separated from mom and dad." Smith added: "I'm not convinced that missing kindergarten and first grade are all that vital to a child's education."

An ongoing study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research has found that second-graders who attended school regularly during the earliest grades scored higher on reading tests.

"Lowering the compulsory age in and of itself will not address the range of factors that affect school attendance, but it does send a message that kids should be in school and be there every day," said consortium senior research analyst Stacy Ehrlich.

One of the House bill's co-sponsors, Democratic Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia of Aurora, has discussed carving out an exemption for home-schoolers to ease their concerns.

Lightford points out that the lower mandatory age could help authorities hold parents accountable when they fail to get students to class. "At that age, it's not the kids' fault — it's the parents'," she said last month in a statement.

The Chicago Teachers Union says it is especially critical to lower the mandatory age now to give educators a tool to counter any upheaval when the city closes underused schools in South and West side communities where K-8 absenteeism and truancy are already high.

"In impoverished neighborhoods ... if you get 5-year-olds into a school, research indicates they have a better chance at achievement," said Stacy Davis Gates, the union's political and legislative director. While CPS and the mayor's office have not announced any specific steps to target the city's crisis in K-8 absenteeism, Emanuel recently launched several initiatives aimed at keeping at-risk kids in school and reducing youth violence, from expanding full-day kindergarten citywide to investing in after-school, summer, early learning and mentoring programs.

Addressing K-8 absenteeism and truancy is a top priority for city schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, said spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler. "She and her team are taking a thoughtful and deliberate approach to creating a comprehensive strategy," Ziegler said.

Byrd-Bennett strongly supports lowering the compulsory age "to encourage regular, consistent attendance," Ziegler added.

But outside Chicago, the Illinois Association of School Boards warns that the lower attendance age may force districts to pay for supplemental anti-truancy measures even though the bills do not specifically mandate them.

Districts may have to hire additional outreach workers, arrange for student transportation or cobble together social services for the neediest families, said Ben Schwarm, the association's deputy executive director. "All those things require resources."