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Speaker after speaker Wednesday criticized a proposal to raise the starting age of kindergarten in Connecticut, saying it would harm many lower-income children's educational achievement unless the state provided universal preschool first.

During a long hearing, several early childhood advocates told the legislature's education committee that the state's proposal to raise the enrollment age would put the state's low- and middle-income children another year behind their peers and would be an economic hardship for parents.

The state Department of Education proposes raising the minimum age so that kindergarten classrooms would comprise mostly 5-year-olds. To enter kindergarten a student would need to turn 5 by Oct. 1, rather than the current Jan. 1 deadline. The bill also would bar parents from enrolling 7-year-olds in kindergarten, a practice that effectively gives older children an athletic, social and academic advantage.

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Former Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan proposed the change to narrow the wide ranges of ages in kindergarten classrooms, making for a more effective educational experience.

At the hearing, the principal of Pine Grove School in Avon said the 88 kindergartners at her school span a 19-month range of ages.

"There is a social and academic disconnect as 4-year-olds work side by side with their 6-year-old peers," said Principal Gail Dahling-Henzh.

Connecticut and Hawaii are the only two states in the country with such an early kindergarten enrollment date, legislators said.

McQuillan's kindergarten proposal also called for providing preschool for low-income children to cover gaps created by raising the kindergarten age requirement. State officials estimated it would cost about $36.7 million a year to provide preschool for the affected 4,400 low-income students.

But the preschool plan is unlikely to get much traction in a year when the state faces a $3.7 billion budget deficit. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed budget calls for $2 million more in preschool funding as a "down payment" toward universal preschool.

During the hearing at the state Capitol complex, several child advocates lobbied against the kindergarten bill, saying it would do more harm than good.

Jake Siegel, a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said the change would worsen the state's academic achievement gap between low-income children and their well-heeled peers.

"Holding back students will give wealthy students another year of high-quality preschool and low-income students another year of sitting at home with child care," Siegel said.

The move also would present a financial hardship to families. Preschool costs on average more than $10,000 a year, which can be 47 percent of a family's budget, Siegel said. In addition, it would hinder a parent's ability to return to the workforce.

Stamford Superintendent Joshua Starr said everyone understands and agrees with the goal of the bill.

"It's not the intent," Starr said. "It's that too many children will be left without any structured education component."

Ann Pratt, of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said some parents feel threatened by the proposed change.

"If I'm a parent and I planned to put my child in kindergarten, then the rule changed, I'd have no services, no support, no access and no help to allow me to work and [deal with] the economic consequences of that," Pratt said.

Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, co-chairwoman of the education committee, said it might make sense to implement the change more slowly so parents have more time to adjust.

"Maybe we are reaching a little too far too fast, but I don't want to take our eye off the ball," Stillman said.