Report: Cuts caused Illinois to lose 8 percent of state pre-K slots

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Illinois’ state preschool program lost 8 percent of its enrollment last
year, according to an annual report released today by the National
Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Illinois’ state preschool program lost 8 percent of its enrollment last year, according to an annual report released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

The loss of preschool seats was most likely the result of a 10 percent state funding cut. Early-childhood funding has held steady since then, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is recommending that the state restore the cut funds for the coming fiscal year 2012.

Among the report’s findings:

*The number of students in Preschool for All declined from more than 95,000 to 87,580. NIEER estimates that about in 14,500 Illinois children were on waiting lists.

*Enrollment of 3-year-olds dropped by more than 10 percent, perhaps indicating that programs enrolled fewer new students to compensate for cuts. However, Illinois still serves a greater percentage of its 3-year-olds than any other state.

*Illinois’ spending per child, which has been decreasing steadily since 2006, fell by $70 to $3,371, putting the state’s funding at 13th-lowest out of 40 states. Eighteen other states saw funding per student drop.

NIEER co-director Steven Barnett stressed at a press briefing that drops in per-child spending can put program quality at risk.

“It’s only if you invest in a high-quality, effective program that you can expect to get the returns for the taxpayer,” Barnett said. “If you cut that, you really risk turning this into glorified babysitting.”

The researchers who compiled the report do not collect localized data, and could not indicate whether most of the 7,000 missing preschool spots came from within Chicago, or outside of it.

Information from the CPS Office of Early Childhood Education indicated that the city lost 1,200 Preschool for All slots in the 2009-10 school year, but made up for them by shifting extra Head Start slots from community organizations to the district.

This suggests that the brunt of the decreases were spread out across the rest of the state.

Illinois was not the only state to see a decline. Programs in many states have seen further cuts since the report’s data was collected. Some have their very existence threatened by recently elected governors.

“The general trends are frankly not encouraging,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during the press briefing. “There are smart ways to cut, and there are dumb ways to cut. I simply can’t support where governors are cutting back on early childhood education.”

Duncan is hoping to funnel some more federal money to early childhood programs this year. Congress recently approved $700 million for another Race to the Top grant competition and Duncan has promised some of that money will go toward early childhood education.

“With just $2 billion more we could reach every disadvantaged child in the U.S. with quality pre-kindergarten,” Barnett said. “If the federal government could leverage state monies, there’s enough money there to get us well on the road to doing that.”

He similarly blasted states that have slashed early-childhood education.

“The Great Lakes states have been in trouble because of the economy, perhaps worse than the rest of the country, and yet Ohio spent almost $1.5 billion in new tax credits and other incentives for business,” Barnett said. “Given what we know about how those don’t work, that’s probably not the strongest investment.