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IL lowers school age. Sounds good, but at what cost?

By   /   August 26, 2013  /   No Comments

By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD — It’s rare to find a 6-year-old in Illinois who is not in school.

Not good enough, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn decreed Sunday. All 6-year-olds, he said, will attend classes. Quinn touted the feel-good law as a boost to young learners.

“The key to so many things in life is a quality education, and this new law will ensure our students get an early start on their academic success,” Quinn said in a statement.

But the governor did not say how many children the new law would add to classrooms next year, or how schools would pay for the new students. “We don’t know how many students would now begin at 6, instead of 7, or where they would enroll,” Illinois State Board of Education spokesman Matt Vannover said. “Based on the most recent enrollment data, we know that there was an increase of 5,700 students between kindergarten and first grade and an increase of 7,900 students between kindergarten and second grade.”

In other words, Vannover said, the law would affect just a fraction of Illinois’ 2 million-plus students. But even at the local level, educators are scratching their heads.

DuPage County Regional Superintendent of Schools Darlene Ruscitti said she has no idea how the new law will affect her district, if at all. “It may be hard to make a direct correlation between increased enrollment and the new law,” Ruscitti said. “For example (one district) has seen an increase in enrollment, but is it due to the new law or the fact that they have implemented all-day kindergarten for the first time?”

Illinois will spend $6.6 billion on public schools this year, including $599 million on early childhood education. In theory, because Illinois pays schools on a per-pupil basis, adding more  6-year-old students will increase those costs.

FOCUS: Steans wants Illinois to focus on school funding, not feel good laws.

FOCUS: Steans wants Illinois to focus on school funding, not feel good laws.

But Robin Steans, who heads Advance Illinois, thinks otherwise. “It’s going to be a district-by-district cost increase,” Steans noted. “It will not make much of a difference, unless there is a cluster (of the new students).”

And while Steans supports the idea of getting younger kids into the classroom, she fears the new law could hurt Illinois schools. “I would hate to see this distract us,” Steans said. “We have a massive school funding challenge. The system is broken.”

Just to keep school funding flat in the new budget, Illinois lawmakers had to find another $150 million. Still, the state is sending just under 90 cents on the dollar of what it is supposed to send to local schools. Illinois Republicans have said adding more 6-year-olds— even a tiny number of them — would add $28 million to the cost of education.

Vannover said the real cost won’t be known until this time next year, when the new students are in the classroom. “Since we don’t know where these children will enroll, we don’t know the method of funding for the individual districts,” Vannover said.

Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org or find him on Twitter @BenYount.

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Ben Yount