STAMFORD -- While educators say Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's pledge to direct $5.7 million to pre-kindergarten programs statewide is a step in the right direction, it will not bridge the gap created by a proposal to change the kindergarten enrollment age.

Malloy said Wednesday he hopes to make pre-kindergarten education available to every child in the state, "irrespective of their family's income," in an effort to close the achievement gap.

"While we don't have the money to do that today, we do have the money to make a down payment on that dream. And this budget does that, to the tune of $5.7 million over two years," Malloy said during his budget address this week.

"Anything is an effective down payment from where we are," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. But it will not solve the problems Connecticut will face if the kindergarten cutoff date is shifted, he said.

In December, the state Board of Education proposed changing the date for kindergarten enrollment. If the proposal is put into action, kindergartners would have to be 5 years old by Oct. 1 in upcoming years, rather than Jan. 1. The change would be phased in over several years, and would begin affecting children set to enter kindergarten in 2012. That year, students must be 5 by Dec. 1, by Nov. 1 the following year and by Oct. 1 in 2014.

The new cutoff would affect roughly 7,500 children in Connecticut.

CAPSS issued a statement this month, noting its members are concerned about the proposal because "a date change without a commitment to universal access to pre-kindergarten programs would be detrimental to poor children in this state."

In the 2009-10 school year, 95.5 percent of kindergartners in the state's wealthiest communities had pre-kindergarten experience, compared to 67.7 percent in the poorest school districts, according to the research and policy organization Connecticut Voices for Children.

"If the state provides grant money for districts with a high concentration of poor children, we will in effect have universal pre-kindergarten," Cirasuolo said Friday. "The reason behind the proposal is that they want to make sure children are mature enough to handle kindergarten, but the present law does not preclude holding them back another year. In fact, parents can wait until children are 7 years old to enroll them in kindergarten."

"It's not a mandate that a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old be in kindergarten. We can really get by without this law until there is universal pre-kindergarten."

Some families do wait an additional year before entering their children in kindergarten.

"My oldest daughter, who is in kindergarten now, her birthday is Dec. 31, so we're essentially the cutoff," said Julie Epstein, a mother of two who lives in Stamford.

Epstein said she and her husband decided to wait an extra year before kindergarten when their daughter was born. So they enrolled her in the Jewish Community Center's Sara Walker Nursery School for an additional year.

"We came from Houston, Texas, where the cutoff is September, and we had people we knew in Houston holding July kids back," Epstein said.

Connecticut is one of three states nationwide with a late cutoff date.

"Our kids are going to college with students from around the country. If our child graduates at 17, there's a big difference sending her off to college with 18- and 19-year-olds," she said.

An additional year of nursery school came with a cost -- $7,995. The Epsteins took the cost into consideration while making the decision, before ultimately deciding an extra year for their daughter to mature was worth the money.

But some families don't have the luxury of making an $8,000 decision.

"Children from low-income families ... are not going to have access to an extra year of high-quality pre-school, and that means when that child enters kindergarten, another child with another year -- the gift of an extra year of education -- the achievement gap, the separation gap between the two is going to be even larger," said Cyd Oppenheimer, senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children.

Stamford Superintendent Joshua Starr said research on pre-kindergarten experience is "unequivocal."

"High-quality pre-K programs absolutely increase the likelihood that poor students, English language learners, students with special needs, whatever it may be, are able to achieve at a higher level," he said.

The CAPSS statement says one result of poor children not having access to pre-kindergarten programs is that "poor children on average enroll in kindergarten with approximately one-third of the vocabulary that children who are not poor have," further exacerbating the achievement gap.

Jeidy Ramos's 3-year-old son attends the Childcare Learning Center's pre-school program at the William Pitt Center in Stamford. Ramos is a single mother who works as a certified nursing assistant at Stamford Hospital. She pays about $200 a month for the program.

"I have to pay for it, but for me it really worked. My older son is in first grade at Stark, and he's doing really good," said Ramos.

"It's hard sometimes, because when you have expenses you don't expect, like my car or personal things, it can be hard. But I always try my best to pay on time and get my son to daycare."

CLC Executive Director Barbara Garvin-Kester said the actual cost of the early education program is $15,000 per year, but 95 percent of enrolled families earn less than 75 percent of the state's median income, qualifying them for subsidies. With these subsidies, the average family pays about $2,000 each year, she said.

CLC serves almost 1,000 children in Stamford, according to Garvin-Kester.

"For us, we would keep these children for an extra year, and that means there are fewer openings for 3-year-olds, so it delays the program for them," she said. "So if legislation is going to change for the kindergartners entering school, that legislation should really look at providing more subsidies for slots for providers such as us."

With details still in need of ironing out, some wonder why Connecticut can't wait a little longer before implementing the earlier cutoff date.

"Nobody can question Gov. Malloy's commitment to pre-kindergarten. Just look at his record," Starr said Friday. "But why not wait, then, until the funding is in place, and the structures are in place to get it right? Why not wait? Why does it have to be now?"

Staff Writer Maggie Gordon can be reached at maggie.gordon@scni.com or 203-964-2229.