Illinois’ nationally recognized Preschool for All program, which Gov. Rod Blagojevich launched in 2006, is set to expire this year. Lawmakers are sure to renew it, but only for another two years, despite support to make it permanent. That’s the General Assembly’s way to keep a short leash on the governor for fear of sending him a blank check.
“I think this got caught up in some of the trust issues between the legislature and the governor,” says House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, the Chicago Democrat sponsoring the two-year extension. “I’m sure at some point — I’m hopeful — that this will become a permanent program. But I think there’s a sense that a short leash is not inappropriate.”
The program is growing and producing results, but it can’t keep up with demand.
Preschool for All, built on an existing program that started in the 1980s, offers state grants to local groups that provide preschool for children. Participation is voluntary. Grants first go to programs serving children who face disadvantages of language, cultural and economic barriers, which increase their risk of failing in school.
The state recently ranked first in the nation for offering preschool to 3-year-olds, enrolling 19 percent of them in Illinois, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Illinois ranked 12th for the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled at 27 percent.
Since the 1980s, state preschool programs have served 190,000 children. The intent of Preschool for All is to expand availability to children from middle-income families to compete for grants. The final phase, provided there’s enough money each year, is supposed to offer state-sponsored preschool to children from any income bracket.
In the past three years, the state has dedicated $30 million, $45 million and $29 million to the program. But the money funded only about a third of the applications the State Board of Education received in the past two years.
Advocacy groups want even more — $68 million — for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. They say it would make up for the amount that wasn’t available last year and help Illinois stay on track to offer preschool to children of more income levels.
But the advocacy groups’ request also would allow the state to expand early childhood education programs to even younger students — infants and toddlers.
The payoff, according to education advocates, is huge down the road, with higher-achieving students and law-abiding citizens, but the General Assembly must decide whether a delayed payoff is worth the millions of state dollars already clouded by a gloomy economic outlook.
Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Maywood Democrat, wants to make the preschool program permanent and eventually offer all-day kindergarten. She says Illinois can create a flow from preschool to college, the mission of the Illinois P-20 Council that was created last year.
“We’ve got to recognize the fact that if children are coming to kindergarten not prepared, meaning they don’t know ABCs, they don’t know numbers and colors, they’re already behind the curve,” Lightford says. “So when they get to that third-grade level of testing, they’re behind at a first-grade level. And we’re surprised. We shouldn’t be.”
But the state can’t keep up with the demand for preschool programs, let alone programs to reach parents with infants and toddlers.
According to the state board, Illinois funded 78 preschool programs across the state this fiscal year, but that’s far short of the 232 that applied for grants. The year before, the agency funded 101 of the 310 proposals for preschool programs.
That’s a much better percentage than prevention programs aimed at parents with infants and toddlers. The state funded six of the 146 proposed programs during the current fiscal year and 15 of 182 last fiscal year.
“We’re not coming even close to meeting the demand,” says Kay Henderson, the state education board’s division administrator for early childhood. “To translate that into dollars and cents, we had almost $23 million worth of requests for birth-to-3 programs, and we funded $1.6 million of those. There’s quite a difference there.”
Lawmakers and education advocates may push next to increase funding for the birth-to-3 programs. But that would require a change in state law, which currently limits the Illinois State Board of Education to spending no more than 11 percent of all funds dedicated to Early Childhood Education on the birth-to-3 programs.
Policymakers and researchers have always recognized programs for birth to 3 as important, particularly because they serve as a way for parents to spend critical time with their children from Day 1, says Diana Rauner, executive director of the Chicago-based advocacy group called the Ounce of Prevention Fund. The organization’s president, Harriet Meyer, also co-chairs the Illinois Early Learning Council, which Blagojevich formed by law to study and make recommendations that helped create Preschool for All.
With the help of the council, Rauner says lawmakers now have more evidence-based research to support their decisions about early childhood education funding.
For instance, studies show that programs aimed at parents with infants and toddlers help the children in brain development and behavioral skills, including perseverance and self-control. Those skills serve them well in preschool.
If children don’t develop the intellectual and behavioral skills early enough, they can suffer from a “bottleneck,” according to a 2006 study by two University of Chicago scientists, Flavio Cunha and James Heckman. That means they have a hard time learning later on.
“In many cases, a 3- to 5-year-old who is a little bit behind their fellow classmates falls further and further behind throughout their school years,” says Sean Noble, director of government relations for Voices for Illinois Children, a privately funded statewide network of advocates based in Chicago. “The flip side of that is that if they have high quality early childhood experience before they get to kindergarten, studies show that the opposite can happen.”
A Michigan study followed at-risk children from preschool to age 40, starting in the 1960s. The ones who attended preschool had higher grades and were more likely to graduate from high school than their at-risk counterparts. They spent less time in special education, and they were less dependent on welfare as adults. There was substantially less crime.
Results also are positive in Illinois. According to the State Board of Education’s June 2007 report, children identified as at-risk for academic failure rated above average in skills needed to enter kindergarten, as well as in reading, math and language skills in elementary school. Results include data since the 1986 program, but numbers are expected to improve as more children attend state-sponsored preschool through Blagojevich’s expansion.
While lawmakers tend to agree with the concept and understand the importance of investing early in children, they also need political will to vote for something that costs now and pays off later — particularly when economists project a $750 million state budget deficit this year and decreased revenues next year.
Rauner says lawmakers don’t have to wait long to see results or to realize cost savings.
“The services that these programs are providing are targeted at the population of children that makes up the vast majority of the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system. Those, of course, are enormous societal costs. To the extent that we can prevent problems from happening, we are investing our dollars wisely.”
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Illinois Issues, April 2008