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Smart Start preschool expansion ahead of schedule in first fiscal year

Two preschoolers play with toys at a Rochester Elementary School early childhood classroom.
Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Campbell
Two preschoolers play with toys at a Rochester Elementary School early childhood classroom.

An early childhood education program championed by Gov. JB Pritzker is ahead of schedule when it comes to increasing access to preschool in Illinois.

The Smart Start program passed last May as part of the state’s operating budget, which allocated $250 million to expand early childhood education programs, including wage support for child care workers, early intervention programs and home visiting programs. It also included a goal of adding 5,000 pre-k spots in areas where access was lacking – and the state has exceeded that number by over 800 seats.

“All of these programs were in preschool deserts where parents previously had long waiting lists or no publicly funded preschool choices at all for their kids,” Gov. JB Pritzker said at a Rochester Elementary School news conference just outside of Springfield.

It was his second downstate stop in two days to celebrate the program’s growth. This year marks the first of a four-year plan aimed at creating 20,000 total new preschool spots.

The Rochester school district received a grant through Smart Start. In 2017, Rochester had only one preschool classroom, with morning and afternoon programs.

“As of today, we have six preschool classrooms which are a combination of half-day programs and full-day programs and can serve 180 students from our community age three to five,” said Jennifer Shaw, the district’s director of special education. “The addition of the Smart Start grant has been enormously beneficial for Rochester’s educational program. We can now offer preschool to at-risk students and those receiving special education services in addition to tuition-based students.”

Smart Start is expanding prevention and evidence-based home services with 17 new programs. Another $130 million will be used to keep and increase staff at child care facilities.

“But that's not all,” Pritzker said. “We also invested an additional $40 million into early intervention services allowing thousands of children to overcome developmental challenges and families to maintain access to these critical services all while giving providers a needed 10 percent rate increase.”

State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders highlighted the importance of early childhood education.

“Preschool is where children and families form their first relationships with their schools.” Sanders said. “What children learn in these early years are essential for the foundation for them to excel in learning the rest of their academic life. Every child deserves to have this strong foundation in their life.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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