Re-envisioning early childhood education and care in Illinois

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The special commission working to improve the quality of the state’s early childhood education system gave an update on their progress Thursday. Governor JB Pritzker is determined to make Illinois the best state for families raising young children.

Pritzker established the Illinois Early Childhood Funding Commission last December. Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), who co-chairs the commission, says members continued their important discussions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Pritzker administration knows access to high-quality early childhood education and care is unfairly and inequitably distributed across the state. Commission members recommend lawmakers redesign the early childhood funding mechanisms to address racial equity, build on successful at-home services, and centralize the early childhood education system.

For instance, providers in under-resourced communities say it’s difficult to deliver quality care under the current system.

“I spend too much time sending the same data and paperwork to multiple agencies too frequently and waiting for reimbursements. Not all providers can afford to float the state funding,” said Rochelle Golliday, Executive Director of Cuddle Care Inc. “When they can’t, they have to float the coasts the only other way they know how.”

In general, Golliday says tough options include increasing fees and copays on families or even laying off staff. She feels the state could bring stability to providers and reliability for families by having one agency with streamlined funding.

Creating a separate agency

Robin Steans, President of Advance Illinois, says the state is in the top six for student growth. However, Illinois is only in the top 30 for kindergarten readiness. Steans said that’s mainly due to “access deserts” leaving parts of the state without critical programs.

“Having a separate agency as other states have done has allowed them to focus, to be coherent, and to really build those bridges from that place of strength,” Steans said.

Many early childhood educators not based in schools make poverty-level wages due to a lack of revenue in the system. Dr. Theresa Hawley, First Assistant Deputy Governor for Education, says over half of these educators qualify for food stamps.

“This is one of the biggest causes of the early childhood educator shortage, which makes it harder to offer high-quality services where they’re needed,” Hawley explained. “All of this together contributes to Illinois’ low kindergarten readiness numbers, which are especially low for children of color.”

Several advocates mentioned the pandemic left the system hanging by a thread. As a result, they hope the state can build a stronger foundation to achieve better outcomes.

Committing to a better future

Manar noted implementing these ideas will obviously take time along with commitments from elected officials and state agencies. The commission hosted their first town hall meeting to gather feedback for the report Thursday night.

“It’s our responsibility to construct a system that serves working families, bridges inequities forged by decades of negligence, and affords opportunity for all. Too many communities do not have pre-k programs available in public schools or licensed child-care centers for working parents,” Manar said. “I believe we can transform the way we fund early childhood education for the better, especially in rural towns and underserved urban areas.”

Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford is also excited about the possible changes to help youth. The Maywood Democrat feels moving early childhood education into one department would deliver better services for everyone.

“I’m encouraged for the report to come out,” Lightford said. “We’ll be supporting the efforts with a resolution to say that we’re advising the state to create a planning process and a timeline.”

The Legislative Black Caucus Chair said she only fears the progress would stall like many other plans in Springfield. Lightford stressed the state must follow through with implementing the plan once approved by lawmakers.

The commission plans to submit their report of suggestions to the governor and General Assembly next month. You can find commission meeting materials and sign up to participate in future town hall meetings by clicking here.

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