A ray of hope for preschools: cash for construction

Print More

Last year, $45 million in state funds were set aside for construction of
preschool classrooms. However, advocates say that a required
dollar-for-dollar match from each preschool will prevent many from
accessing the money.

Last year, $45 million in state funds were set aside for construction of preschool classrooms. However, advocates say that a required dollar-for-dollar match from each preschool will prevent many from accessing the money.

Community-based organizations, which run many of the state’s Preschool for All and federal Head Start programs, would have a hard time raising such large sums.

But on March 18, the state Senate passed a bill that would make it easier to access the money. It would cut the statewide match to 10 percent, and set aside $9 million of the $45 million for Chicago.

Now, the bill is making its way through the state House of Representatives. An Education Committee hearing on the bill is slated for Wednesday. The committee will vote on whether to send the bill to the full House of Representatives, although it’s not clear whether that will happen.

“We’re thrilled,” says Sara McElmurry, a spokeswoman for the Latino Policy Forum. “We were in Springfield earlier this week, and we thought (the bill) wasn’t going to move at all.”

The bill would potentially expand access in neighborhoods with overcrowded schools, such as Chicago’s Northwest side.

Marta Moya-Leang, head preschool teacher at Belmont-Cragin Early Childhood Center, says dedicated funding to build preschools is important because often they are forgotten. The Center has a waiting list of 179 youngsters—the most of any Preschool for All program in the district.

“Preschool is not mandatory, [so] it is the first thing to go,” she says.

Community-based organizations in high-need areas have an especially hard time raising money for construction, says Martin Torres, a policy analyst at the Latino Policy Forum. Nonprofits often have a limited cash flow and harder time taking on debt.

But even as advocates hope the bill will pass, the state’s Capital Development Board is already working to develop rules for distributing the funds based on the current 50 percent match requirement.

The board will determine priority areas, where preschool facilities are in short supply, and then issue a request for construction and renovation proposals. “We know these [include] many communities like Aurora, Cicero, Waukegan, Round Lake, and the Northwest and Southwest sides of Chicago,” Torres says.

Anthony Raden, a deputy commissioner for policy at the city’s Department of Family and Support Services who also co-chairs the space capacity committee of the Illinois Early Learning Council, says he has seen plenty of interest so far. “There are many agencies that are interested in renovating facilities or relocating to other neighborhoods that are undergoing demographic changes,” he says.

He also notes that the City of Chicago has funded child-care facility construction in the past, raising the possibility that the city could step in now. “We will be looking closely at whether there are other resources we can leverage to help construction in high-need areas,” Raden says.

Torres notes that the money is a one-time allocation that will only go so far.

“When it’s gone, it’s gone,” he says.