Child-parent Center Credit: photo by Rich Foreman

Until recently, Chicago Public Schools and the state of Illinois have been viewed as leaders in early childhood education.

In the 1960s, CPS was one of a few pioneering school districts to create child-parent centers in low-income communities. As their name indicates, the amply staffed centers worked with children and their parents.

In the 1980s, Illinois joined a handful of other states in launching a state-financed pre-kindergarten program for youngsters who were considered at-risk of educational failure due to poverty or other socioeconomic factors.

However, in the 1990s, other school districts and states, including Georgia, New Jersey and Oklahoma, shot ahead by offering early childhood education to all 4-year-old children and some 3-year-olds in their states.

Now, Illinois is playing catch up, and it’s playing hard. Not since the Chicago School Reform Act was passed in 1988 have so many diverse groups rallied around a single issue in Springfield. Early childhood advocacy groups have joined forces with child care providers, school districts, state board of education officials, business leaders, even police organizations to map out an early childhood education system and build the public will to make it happen.

“This place has an embarrassment of riches,” says Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “Right now, everyone is interested in early childhood—the state, the business community, foundations, Chicago Public Schools, the Mayor.

Fifteen years ago, Ounce was the only game in town

Indeed, in September, Mayor Richard Daley lured Lucinda Lee Katz, then the director of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, to City Hall to create an early childhood education plan for the city, which will be unveiled in mid-April.

The long-term goal is to make it possible for parents, if they choose, to enroll their 3- and 4-year-olds in an affordable, high-quality program taught by qualified teachers. Child care would meld into early childhood education.

“Parents are interested in options and choices,” says Jerome Stermer, president of Voices of Illinois Children. “They need to have quality child care and preschool organized together.”

Estimates of the cost of fully implementing a universal preschool program in Illinois range upwards of $441 million per year, a fraction of the $2.3 billion that a 1 percent hike in state income taxes would raise.

Renovating and outfitting suitable facilities would be an additional expense.

More than a third of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds—about 148,500 children—are enrolled in government-funded preschool or child care programs. Of those, 56,000 are in state pre-k, 36,400 are in federal Head Start programs and 55,500 are in state-subsidized child care.

“A universal preschool program makes sense,” Stermer says. Drawing on a long-term study of children who attended a model preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s, Stermer says that every dollar spent on preschool saves $7 down the line on special education, welfare and criminal justice.

Another compelling reason for universal preschool is narrowing the knowledge and skills gap between children from low-income families and their middle- and upper-income counterparts.

“We do know that disadvantaged kids lag behind,” says Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “When a whole class of children [is] lagging behind, those kids are not getting the same kinds of opportunities.”

Unfortunately for the advocates, their campaign is coming to a head as the state’s projected revenue shortfall approaches $5 billion.

The short-term outlook for universal preschool is not good, says state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), recently appointed chair of the Senate Education Committee. “These groups alone don’t have the strength. The political will doesn’t come from us, it comes from the people.”

And while people may generally support the concept, “the public has no appetite for new taxes,” says Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who supports universal preschool. “One of the hardest things for politicians to do is invest long term, because they think short term. The public is going to have to tell them they want this.”

Fanning the fires

Early childhood advocates like Voices and the Ounce of Prevention Fund have been teaming up to lobby for universal access to preschool since the early 1980s. “It’s always been on the agenda,” says Voices spokesperson Julie Parente.

By 2000, though, their efforts gained momentum.

“A lot of things were happening at the same time,” says Margie Wallen, an early childhood education consultant to former Gov. George Ryan. Brain researchers had scientific proof that the ability to learn begins at birth, and polls showed that Illinois voters believed access to high-quality preschools was important, she explains.

In the fall of 2000, the concept gained momentum when former first lady Lura Lynn Ryan, chair of the state’s “Future for Kids” initiative, convened an assembly on early child care and education. The group voted to make universal preschool for 3-and 4-year-olds a top priority.

In June 2001, Gov. Ryan followed up by naming a task force of early childhood experts, educators, advocates and legislators to craft a framework for ensuring that all 3- and 4-year-olds in Illinois have access to high-quality early education.

Later that year, the task force unveiled a 10-year plan to roll out universal preschool. The first year would be devoted to improving existing preschools to meet higher standards of quality for 3,400 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds. By 2012, up to 202,000 3- and 4-year-old children would have access to a high-quality program. Recognizing that not all parents want their children in a preschool program so early, the plan was not intended to serve all preschool children in the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education set aside $5.2 million to launch the plan in six school districts, including Chicago, last fall. However, before the fall’s gubernatorial election, Ryan put the roll-out on hold.

While Ryan was bowing out of office, the man who would succeed him emerged as another early childhood advocate. During his campaign, Rod Blagojevich pledged to earmark $90 million of his first budget for early childhood.

However, by the time he gave his State of the State speech in March, the new governor had pared that figure to $25 million.

“It’s a very hard time,” Wallen said before the speech. “We’re looking at homeland security, going to war, K-12 problems. We know what to do. It’s just that the priority is difficult.”

Creating public will

The campaign for universal preschool became more focused and professional as the November election approached.

During the state budget cycle last spring, school reformers at Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) coordinated a telephone campaign to lobby against cuts to the Early Childhood Block Grant.

“We contacted every preschool classroom in Chicago public schools,” says Laurie LeBreton, a consultant with PURE.

In June, early childhood advocates’ efforts in Illinois caught the eye of the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts and the Trust for Early Education, a new group working with advocacy groups in four states to push an early education agenda.

Illinois was one of the four chosen because of its strength in organizing and advocacy. The others are Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.

“Advocacy—this is one of the things we looked for when choosing what states to work with,” says Susan Uran, director of education programs for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “We see this in other states, but Illinois is out in front.”

Three local advocacy groups—the Day Care Action Council of Illinois, the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Voices for Illinois Children—got funding and launched a campaign for universal access to preschool called “Early Learning Illinois: Access, Options and Opportunities.”

“While all three groups do a little bit of everything, they each bring particular strengths to the table,” says Kathy Stohr, who spearheads the campaign.

Specifically, the bailiwick of the Day Care Action Council is grassroots organizing, the Ounce handles research and policy and Voices runs campaign communications and public relations.

The campaign has two major goals: Persuading the governor and state lawmakers to make universal access to preschool a top priority, and organizing parents, educators and community groups to lobby for early childhood programs.

In October, more than 280 educators, community leaders, child care directors and parents converged on the Standard Club for a conference on early childhood education. One by one, leaders from organizations such as The Children’s Project, took the podium and made the case for improving the state’s early education system.

Though the speakers were singing to the choir, their purpose was to mobilize the choir into action. Those in attendance were asked to fill out two pre-stamped postcards to send to gubernatorial candidates. The message: We will give our votes to those “who would best represent the early learning interests of Illinois’ children.”

Since then, the campaign has focused on getting constituents to write letters or call the governor, primarily through radio ads.

Diverse supporters

The Early Learning Illinois campaign has attracted backers from inside and outside educational circles. The Chicago Teachers Union took up the issue in February, when it formed an early childhood education committee to advise the union on issues that teachers think are important.

The Illinois chapter of a national coalition, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, is lobbying in Springfield for universal preschool. The coalition includes more than 2,000 police, prosecutors and crime victims who aim to prevent crime though better public policy for children.

“There is a whole slew of research that shows early childhood education cuts crime,” says charter spokeswoman Lena Parsons.

The chapter’s legislative agenda includes increasing funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant, updating income eligibility guidelines for families and supporting creation of a preschool advisory group for the governor’s office. Parsons notes that the group has caught the attention of legislators, who are more accustomed to advocates lobbying for better preschools. “Law enforcement is an unexpected voice for early childhood education,” she says.

The business community, which helped push school reform in Chicago, has taken up the cause for early childhood education, too.

“We’ve been talking to, calling and writing legislators as needed,” says Adele Simmons, vice chair of Chicago Metropolis 2020, a policy advocacy group organized by the Commercial Club of Chicago.

“You have businesses themselves who have wonderful early childhood education—Abbott Labs, Northern Trust. They are finding it makes a tremendous difference not just on the kids but on their employees,” she adds.

Budget constraints

Despite the economy, early childhood advocates are heartened by the response.

“I’ve been in this field for 10 years,” says Stohr, “and I see a shift from ‘We’ll not talk about this because mothers should be at home with their young children’ to ‘This is a good idea.'”

“Some of these new legislators are young guys with young children,” she notes.

Still, legislators are unlikely to take action until a steady funding stream is identified, says Stermer, who often hears them say, “Show me the money, and I’m there.”

The Ryan task force explored funding strategies, including shifting the burden of education funding to income rather than property taxes, but it made no recommendations, Wallen says.

Advocates are now waiting to get details on Gov. Blagojevich’s budget proposal, which will be released this month. Some of them, though, believe it’s possible to make headway this year.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan is confident the governor will find a way to make good on his pledge to increase funding for universal access to preschool. “The state budget’s deficit is real,” he says. “But I’ve learned that when the budget is tough, it focuses you. You prioritize, you reallocate.”

Even California, which has the largest deficit in the country, has found money to advance its universal preschool program, notes Uran of the Pew Charitable Trusts. “There is a good chance that Illinois can make this move forward, even if it is baby steps,” she says.

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