Advisory council renews call for universal preschool

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In the current state budget, Gov. Rod Blagojevich paid the final installment of a pledge to invest $90 million over three years to increase the number of children in preschool.

Now that the governor has fulfilled his financial promise, early childhood advocates are looking this year for his leadership to renew the call for universal preschool programs for every 3- and 4-year-old in the state by 2012. For the last two years, a blue-ribbon committee put together the “Preschool for All” plan, an initiative to ensure that Illinois children under the age of five have access to quality early learning programs.

The group wants the governor to officially endorse the plan, select which recommendations will be state priorities and make a financial commitment to move them forward.

“The recommendations have been presented, accepted and are sitting on his desk,” says Sessy Nyman, who oversees public policy and government relations for the advocacy group Action for Children. “The governor gets it and so does the legislature. Now it is just a matter of what makes sense to do first. There is a lot to consider.”

Among the committee’s recommendations are creating a two-year preschool system to serve 3- and 4-year-olds and creating programs with flexible scheduling—full-day, half-day, year-round—to meet parents’ needs.

The plan also hones in on a number of quality considerations, notably requiring preschool teachers to have four-year college degrees with specialized training in early childhood, and ensuring that the curriculum is well-designed and research-based. It also calls for creating assessments that are appropriate for young children and evaluations that will help programs improve. (For a complete list of the recommendations, visit www.catalyst-chicago.org.)

Advocates estimate that implementing all of the recommendations would cost the state a hefty $415 million to serve about 188,000 poor 3- and 4-year olds by 2012.

The plan is the result of a two-year collaboration between Ounce of Prevention, Action for Children, Voices for Illinois Children and other early childhood organizations across the state who are represented on the Illinois Early Learning Council. The council was convened in 2003 to explore ways to expand and improve early childhood education programs. Also represented are school districts, state board of education officials, business leaders, parents and law enforcement groups.