Charting a course to create preschool for all in Illinois

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

For two years, members of the Illinois Early Learning Council deliberated the best strategies for creating a statewide system of high-quality preschools for 3- and 4-year-olds. What they came up with is a list of recommendations that lay the foundation for a two-year program to serve poor families and children who are otherwise at-risk of failure in school.

Now, early childhood advocates and educators are keeping their fingers crossed that Gov. Rod Blagojevich will publicly endorse all of these recommendations and make a financial investment to move them forward. “It is just a matter of what makes sense to do first,” says Sessy Nyman, who heads government relations for Action for Children, an advocacy group.

Meanwhile, the Rand Corporation released a study this summer that examined eight states’ nascent efforts to make preschool programs universally available. In the report—”Going to Scale with High-Quality Early Education: Choices and Consequences in Universal Pre-kindergarten Efforts”—researchers explain some of the challenges state policymakers are facing.

Not the least of these concerns is how cash-strapped states pay for it, particularly when many of those studied are relying on the federal government’s tightfisted domestic spending program. Two other concerns are finding enough teachers and administrators who have the background and credentials to operate top-notch preschools, and making sure that efforts to integrate pre-K with other social supports do not conflict with those agencies’ child welfare goals.

Besides funding, the most difficult terrain, however, in the uncharted world of universal preschool is in the realm of access and accountability.

The term “universal” is itself a bit of a misnomer, say Rand researchers, because most states target their pre-K programs for certain groups of children, often defined by family income or other criteria. Even then, not every child in those designated groups is served. Further complicating access are eligibility formulas, often with strict income guidelines, that exclude some working poor families who cannot afford to pay for high-caliber preschool programs. Instead, those families are likely to tap friends or relatives who can care for their children.

And fear is a factor, too. As preschool is swept into the public education accountability movement, some worry that academic skills will get more attention than equally important social and emotional development. Case in point: A two-year-old nationwide test for Head Start pre-K students only assesses literacy and math skills. Only now are federal officials considering adding another section that would measure non-academic areas.

Only two states—Georgia and Oklahoma—have traveled the full distance to universal pre-K. Illinois, by most counts in the Rand report, has been adept so far at steering clear or planning ahead for obstacles. It ranked favorably on last year’s state of preschool yearbook, published by the National Institute of Early Childhood Research.

But with only 75,000 children enrolled in state pre-K, we’re less than halfway toward reaching the ultimate target of serving 188,000 3- and 4-years-olds. A hefty price tag of $415 million is attached to this project, but its one that can win rebates down the road through reductions in special education, high school dropout rates and social problems that boost costs to society.

There’s a long road ahead, and the next move for Illinois will come out of the governor’s office. Let’s hope he’s quick on his feet.

ABOUT US I am pleased to introduce our new Springfield correspondent Patrick J. Guinane, who has been covering the statehouse for three years. His predecessor, Daniel C. Vock, has moved to Washington, D.C., to become a writer for the politics and policy news website Stateline.org.

I would also like to extend a warm welcome to Catalyst Chicago’s newest

editorial board members. They are Carlos Azcoitia, principal, Spry elementary and high schools; Ray Boyer, public relations consultant; Joan Crisler, principal, Dixon Elementary; and Sara Spurlark, retired director of leadership development, Center for Urban School Improvement. Beginning this year, Dion Miller Perez of the Telpochcalli Community Education Project will serve as board chair and Vivian Loseth of Youth Guidance will be vice-chair. Also, fond farewells to departing board members Hazel B. Steward and Tony Wilkins, whose insights will be greatly missed.