Grassroots and union activists urge universal preschool in Chicago

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As New York City rolls out an ambitious plan to offer free full-day prekindergarten for tens of thousands of 4-year-olds this fall, community activists and union members in Chicago say it’s time for universal early childhood education and child care in the Windy City.

Calling their campaign “Bright Future Chicago,” the groups say the city needs to find creative ways to finance the expansion of existing preschool and daycare programs – and extending the hours – so that parents can work full-time while their children under 5 years old are in a safe learning environment.

“The city needs to do something for us working parents,” said Hellen Juarez, a single mom and paralegal who is a parent leader with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council. “I pay $700 a month for my 2-year-old to be in day care. That’s a rent payment. How is that affordable?”

At a press conference this morning in City Hall, a handful of progressive aldermen who support the new campaign said they’ll present a resolution on Wednesday requesting a public hearing to discuss what it will take to offer full-day preschool and childcare in the city. Supporters have suggested financing the expansion with a new tax on financial transactions at Chicago’s stock exchanges.

“We want to have a hearing and talk about why it’s important to offer full-day pre-kindergarten and how we can pay for it,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer of the 6th Ward. “I’m not saying the LaSalle Street tax or interest rate swaps are the end-all, be-all of what we’re going to do, but it’s worth a conversation.”

The organizations involved in the campaign include the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Pilsen Alliance, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Action Now, Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois.

Their campaign comes barely a month after Emanuel announced a plan to provide an additional 1,500 preschool slots for low-income 4-year-olds by next year, a goal he has described as “universal pre-K for every child at poverty.”

“Mayor Emanuel agrees that every child should have access to high-quality pre-school, which is why he has already committed to ensuring every 4-year-old from a low-income family will be offered free pre-school within a year,” a spokesman for the mayor said in a statement on Tuesday. “Throughout his time in office, Mayor Emanuel has prioritized ensuring every child in every neighborhood has a quality education that allows them to succeed, through early learning programs, a full day of kindergarten, a full school day and a full school year.”

The Mayor’s Office and CPS reached the 1,500 figure by subtracting the total number of 4-year-olds served in one of the city’s school- or center-based programs from the total number of children of that age who are considered at poverty level according to U.S. Census estimates.

Preschool spending on decline in Illinois

The challenges of providing early education opportunities to children aren’t unique to Chicago. As a state, Illinois has cut back spending on preschool programs by more than 25 percent, according to a recent report by Voices for Illinois Children.

To offset some of the loss, Emanuel pledged $36 million in additional funding over three years, starting in 2012 for his Ready to Learn initiative.

As part of Ready to Learn, the city also centralized its application process for early childhood programs, which are administered by the Department of Family Support and Services and CPS. The goal was to prioritize the high-poverty areas of the city with the most need. But parents struggled to navigate the new process and complained that it was harder to access preschools in their neighborhoods, which ultimately led to an enrollment drop of about 1,000 4-year-olds.

Parents and organizers say that while they’re glad the mayor is trying to expand the number of available seats, that it’s still not enough. True universal preschool, they say, would apply to all children, not just the poorest. Juarez, for example, says she doesn’t qualify for state childcare subsidies. In addition, recent studies including one by the Latino Policy Forum have found that there simply aren’t enough available slots at existing preschool programs in some densely populated Latino neighborhoods, such as Brighton Park or Belmont-Cragin.

And a recent report by Voices for Illinois Children showed that just 53 percent of Chicago’s 3- and 4-year-olds attended some sort of preschool, with the lowest participation rates in the heavily Latino Northwest and Southwest sides.