Early education another victim of Illinois budget crisis

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Preschool for All, still reeling from a 10 percent funding cut this
fall, is now facing even more uncertainty. As the state teeters on the
edge of insolvency – with at least $5 billion in unpaid bills this year
and a projected deficit for next year large enough to wipe out several
state departments – no one is sure how many children the program will
be able to serve, or have to turn away, next year.

Preschool for All, still reeling from a 10 percent funding cut this fall, is now facing even more uncertainty. As the state teeters on the edge of insolvency – with at least $5 billion in unpaid bills this year and a projected deficit for next year large enough to wipe out several state departments – no one is sure how many children the program will be able to serve, or have to turn away, next year.

The Illinois State Board of Education has requested that the cuts be restored in the coming year, which would bring funding back to 2008-09 levels. But even if that money comes through, it would not be enough to help Chicago Public Schools keep up with rising teacher salaries. CPS used federal Title I and stimulus funds to make up for this year’s $14 million loss state funds, but the district still lost 1,200 Preschool for All slots.

Already, CPS is planning to scale back its spring promotion of Preschool for All.

“We had a campaign all mapped out to encourage people to register their children, but now we’ll only do it in certain neighborhoods,” says Barbara Bowman, the district’s chief early childhood education officer. “We’re afraid we’ll have too many people coming in.”

Chicago isn’t alone. Districts across the state have put preschool expansion on hold because of the cuts. Meanwhile, the state’s delayed payments have pushed some preschool programs to the brink of closure.

As of January 1, more than 2,000 children were on CPS waiting lists. (The following map shows Chicago schools with the longest Preschool for All waiting lists; story continues below.)

To keep classrooms open, the 1,200 Preschool for All slots that CPS lost were converted into Head Start slots, using funds the city shifted from community organizations to the district. That move left preschool enrollment in schools flat, but resulted in a loss of at least 1,200 slots citywide.

The district also put preschool enrollment under a microscope and cut some teaching positions to half-time, and stopped asking principals to apply for third-shift preschools – which the district had previously pushed as a solution for overcrowded neighborhoods.

Principals who ask for new preschool classes have mostly been turned down. “This has been the first time since 1986 that I have had to say no,” says Paula Cottone, deputy chief early childhood education officer for CPS.

Some programs could shut down next year, even if this year’s cuts are reversed.  “We have two years of raises to compensate for,” Cottone says.

Since most Preschool for All programs give preference to low-income and other at-risk children, working families who cannot afford private preschool are most likely to be shut out if the number of available slots decreases again next year.


Opportunities for expansion lost

This year, proposals that would have provided preschool slots for 8,873 additional children statewide were turned down for lack of money, according to data provided by ISBE. In comparison, in 2008, the program gained more than 3,600 new spots. (The map below lists programs that requested new funding this year and were unable to get it; story continues after the map.)

In suburban Cook County, the Community Economic Development Association lost its bid for some 1,500 slots. The group planned to combine Preschool for All and Head Start funds to open a 6-hour-a-day preschool program, plus parent job training and English-as-a-second language classes. The money would also have paid for additional certified early childhood teachers with bachelors’ degrees.

In Schaumburg, about 80 new slots requested by the district would have barely made a dent in the waiting list of 240 students. “And we get 10 to 20 more calls a week,” says district spokeswoman Terri McHugh.

Many of Schaumburg’s preschool teachers were laid off last spring as the state hashed out funding, only to be offered their jobs back once funds were appropriated. With another long budgeting process ahead, the district is getting ready to do it again.

“You have to hope … in August that you still have the quality staff available,” McHugh says.

Programs are also coping with the fallout from the state’s late payments of preschool funds. “They’ve taken out lines of credit. They have delayed giving any kind of pay increases to early childhood teachers, who were vastly underpaid to begin with,” says Sean Noble, director of government relations at Voices for Illinois Children.

A handful of home visiting programs have closed, and a handful of school districts are thinking about cutting or eliminating Preschool for All. Noble predicts “five times more closings” if the state’s fiscal problems continue another year.

In the long run, continued funding uncertainty could lead to more teacher turnover, says Noble. “It’s already difficult for these folks to stick around in this profession,” he says. “They can look down the road and see that the kindergarten teacher is making more than them, and the junior high teacher might be making even more.”

Early childhood advocates are pushing for tax hikes to increase the state’s revenue and, in turn, shore up preschool funding. They also want to remove the June 30, 2010 sunset date from the Preschool for All program.

In a panel session at the recent annual conference of the Chicago Metro Association for the Education of Young Children, Voices for Illinois Children President Kathy Ryg, a former state representative, coached about 50 preschool teachers on lobbying for early education funding.

 

“You’re an expert who can inform that legislator,” Ryg told the teachers. “Your stories are very powerful. We often call it legislating by anecdote.”

She and other panelists offered specific tips: Start advocacy with friends and family, and recruit them to send in form letters. Use phrases like “tax modernization” and “tax reform” to make the idea more palatable. Entice legislators to come to open houses at your preschool center. And pay attention – someone at your center could be a legislator’s child, grandchild, niece or nephew.

“You’re talking about 16,000 people that could potentially make a difference in the field of early learning,” said Tonya Frehner, director of programs for the Illinois Association for the Education of Young Children.