Ready to Learn bill deflects conservative challenge

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Two years ago, Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children, visited a Head Start in the Chicago suburbs. Children attended for the afternoon only, yet most of their parents worked or went to school all day. Stermer wondered how the kids got from day care to Head Start.

“Well, they come on the bus,” the director told him. As it turned out, the first child got on the bus at 10:45 a.m. but didn’t arrive at Head Start until 12:30 p.m.

“Kids all across this state, little tiny children, are spending enormous amounts of time on buses because we can’t get the care and the education programs to be in the same place,” Stermer says.

Other kids aren’t getting to educational programs at all, he adds, because there’s no transportation to or from day care.

Combining care and education for disadvantaged children is the goal of a Ready to Learn bill that sailed through the General Assembly last spring. Gov. Jim Edgar subsequently made several amendatory vetoes that proponents don’t like—for instance, reducing the number of non-governmental members on the Ready to Learn Council and striking home-based day care from the bill. Even so, legislators are expected to accept the changes in the fall veto session.

“He didn’t take the guts out of what we were trying to do,” says Sen. Frank Watson (R-Carlyle), who co-chaired Edgar’s Work Group on Early Childhood Education, which drafted the bill. “I was disappointed with the amendatory veto, but we’re going to vote to concur.”

No money

The bill authorizes a framework for state grants to help public preschool programs and Head Starts extend their day to include day care, and help private day care centers include an educational program. It also sets up a fund for new full-day state prekindergartens, most of which are now half-day.

The bill anticipates making start-up grants available beginning next July, and implementation grants beginning in July 1997.

To qualify, a program must provide at least nine hours of care a day at a single site. It also must provide appropriate education, medical and dental screenings, immunizations, parent involvement activities, and referrals to social service agencies at a parent’s request.

Day care centers must hire teachers with associate degrees in early childhood education or child development. Centers with more than 30 children need a teacher coordinator with a bachelor’s degree in one of those disciplines.

Rep. Verna Clayton (R-Buffalo Grove), chief sponsor in the House, recalls a Chicago Sun-Times survey that found almost half of the city’s kindergartners unable to identify the colors red, yellow and blue. “I thought, there’s something wrong here. How can we expect these children to perform in school?”

Also, Clayton says, expanded day care must “go hand in glove with welfare reform.” If parents on welfare are going to work, she and other advocates say, their children need care.

However, the bill drew heated opposition from some religious and conservative groups, which argued that it would encourage “irresponsible parents” to leave their children in the care of “government nannies” and put more mothers in the workforce.

“Government is going to be raising children as early as they could get them,” said Rep. Bob Biggins (R-Elmhurst). “I think [the bill] is telling disadvantaged parents that they don’t know how to raise their children. ‘Give them to the government, and we’ll raise them.’ “

Fanned by downstate radio talk shows, rumors circulated that all-day programs would be mandatory. “There were mothers calling the legislature saying ‘Please don’t vote for Senate Bill 377. I don’t want to put my child in day care.’ ” Clayton says.

Pressure from conservative groups swayed some legislators and prompted proponents to add language stressing that all programs would be voluntary.

“Illinois can’t afford not to have this bill,” says Stermer, arguing that dollars spent on early education and care can reduce future expenditures on special education, prisons and welfare. “Investing in early childhood is kind of a prevention strategy. This Ready to Learn bill is a good first step.”