Universal preschool

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The issue

Brain research shows children’s greatest opportunities for learning begin before they reach kindergarten.

Based on those findings, early childhood advocates in Illinois want to make it possible for all 3- and 4-year-olds to have access to affordable, high-quality preschool and birth-to-3 programs that accommodate parents’ schedules.

More than a third of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds—about 148,500 children—are enrolled in government-funded preschool or child care programs. Of those, 56,000 are in state pre-k, 36,400 are in federal Head Start programs and 55,500 are in state-subsidized child care.

Two years ago, a task force of educators, advocates and legislators crafted a plan for universal-access preschool that would be high quality and staffed by certified teachers. The plan calls for 202,000 3- and 4-year-old children to be served by 2012.

This year’s budget called for Chicago Public Schools to increase by 64 the number of classrooms in state pre-kindergarten, Head Start, child-parent centers, subcontracted child care agencies and tuition-based programs.

The problem

Fully implementing a universal preschool program would cost an estimated $441 million a year. However, a state budget crunch—projected revenues are expected to fall $5 billion short—and a tough economic climate limit the outlook.

Before he was elected, Gov. Rod Blagojevich pledged to spend $90 million for early childhood education. But when he delivered his State of the State speech in March, the new governor had pared down that figure to $25 million.

Besides funding, the universal preschool concept has infrastructure problems, as well.

Advocates are not looking to simply create more programs; they want to improve the quality of early childhood programs by hiring better teachers, finding enough suitable space and making it easier for parents to use them.

However, in Illinois, the preschool playing field is decidedly uneven in both teacher training and pay. Suitable space for preschool programs is scarce. And eligibility requirements for state- and federally funded programs make it difficult for families to qualify or remain eligible when family circumstances improve.

Actions underway

Three local advocacy groups—the Day Care Action Council of Illinois, the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Voices for Illinois Children—received a grant to launch a grassroots campaign for universal access to preschool called “Early Learning Illinois: Access, Options and Opportunities.”

The campaign has two major goals: Persuading the governor and state lawmakers to make universal access to preschool a priority, and organizing parents, educators and community groups to lobby for early childhood programs.

The Early Learning Illinois campaign has attracted backers from inside and outside educational circles. The Chicago Teachers Union formed an early childhood education committee to advise the union on issues that teachers think are important.

The Illinois chapter of a national coalition of police, prosecutors and crime victims, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, is lobbying in Springfield for universal preschool. The business community has taken up the cause for early childhood education, too.

In February, CPS became the first public school district in the country to offer a birth-to-3 program when the National Teachers Academy launched its infant-toddler initiative.

Mayor Daley hired a former University of Chicago Laboratory Schools director to design an early childhood plan for the city.

Resources

For more information on the Early Learning Illinois campaign, call Kathy Stohr at (312) 516-5575.

For details on family income eligibility, child-care subsidies and programs available in Illinois, call the Day Care Action Council of Illinois at (773) 561-7900.

For information on government policies and community efforts for children, call Voices for Illinois Children at (312) 456-0600.

For information on zero to 3 programs and research, call the Ounce of Prevention Fund at (312) 922-3863.