Seeking federal grant, Illinois promises huge investments in early childhood ed

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As part of an ambitious application for up to $80 million in new federal preschool expansion money, the State of Illinois says it can commit to increasing its own spending on early childhood education programs by $250 million annually by 2020.

That would mean a complete reversal of the state’s previous trend of cutting back allocations to the Early Childhood Block Grant, which stands at about $300 million this fiscal year – down from $342 million in 2010. Now the state says it could increase spending by $50 million during each of the next five years until it hits the $550 million mark in 2020.

The money would help fund nearly 14,000 full-day preschool slots for 4-year-olds, prioritizing children with the highest needs – including those with developmental disabilities, who are homeless, in foster care or living in poverty. In addition, the state is proposing major investments in its preschool programs for 3-year-olds as well as its Birth to Five Initiative, which includes increased funding for child care assistance, home visiting programs and outreach to pregnant women.

“Sometime the federal competitions come around and you have to twist and turn yourself around to fit what they’re looking for,” said Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, which submitted the federal proposal. “They came to us with what we were thinking we needed to do anyway and we’re planning to do […]. We think we put together a fabulous proposal.”

A massive infusion of state funds into early learning programs would give Illinois a competitive advantage over other states that applied for the four-year grant. But, given Illinois’ ongoing financial woes and the pending loss of income tax revenues in January (when a temporary tax increase is set to expire), it’s unclear where that additional money would come from. The budget is made even more uncertain with gubernatorial and state legislative elections coming up next month.

States that successfully obtain the grant but don’t make the investments they promised risk losing the federal dollars.

Galvanizing the early learning community

Hawley, whose office submitted the grant in collaboration with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), didn’t explain how the state should pay for the $250 million commitment but stressed that Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is a strong advocate for expanding early education programs.

“The governor has repeatedly said the legislature left their work unfinished when they left” the spring session, said Hawley, who didn’t comment on what could happen to the grant proposal should Quinn lose.

The governor’s challenger, Republican Bruce Rauner, has promised to increase funding to the state’s early childhood programs if elected. His wife, Diana, heads the Ounce of Prevention Fund, one of the state’s biggest early childhood education organizations.

Some advocates told Catalyst that federal funding could be used as leverage with the State Legislature to ensure increased spending on early childhood education.

“I think this galvanizes the early learning community to really stand up and demand that state lawmakers stop pretending that this is not urgent,” said Maria Whelan, president and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. “This is not speculative anymore. What we’re talking about is making a significant investment in making sure that the poorest, most at-risk children and their families have high-quality learning intervention that really will change their lives. If we as a state with a multi-billion dollar budget can’t come up with the money, then shame on us.”

In recent years, though, the Legislature has cut back spending on early childhood education. According to a report earlier this summer from Voices for Illinois Children, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has “eroded” to levels not seen since 2005. The detailed report on the disparities in access to preschool across the state called for the Legislature to increase its investment.

Full-day classes, better teacher salaries

States had until Wednesday to apply for a piece of the federal Preschool Development Grants program, which was developed by the U.S Departments of Education and Health and Human Services earlier this year. The goal of the grants is to help states build and expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for children from low-income families.

Unlike the state’s existing Preschool for All program, the new federal initiative requires full-day preschool. Another key difference is eligibility: 3- and 4-year-olds who are considered “at-risk” of academic failure are eligible for Preschool for All slots, but the new federal initiative is only for 4-year-olds from low-income families. The federal initiative also requires instructional staff salaries to be comparable to local K-12 salaries.

The federal funding awards will be announced in December.

Last month (ISBE) unanimously voted to authorize the submission of the state’s grant application with no discussion on the feasibility of the spending plan.  (See summary on page 282 in ISBE agenda.)

State schools Superintendent Christopher Koch recognized it’s unusual to ask for permission from the board before applying for a grant, but that he wanted to be “up front” about it because of the spending commitment that’s part of the application.

“If you approve this, we would include that amount of $50 million annually, I wanted you to know that up front,” Koch told the board. “You may do that anyway, regardless of whether we receive the grant.”