Illinois has long been seen as a leader in early-childhood education,
but a national organization says the state has started to slip.

Illinois has long been seen as a leader in early-childhood education, but a national organization says the state has started to slip.

Two years ago, Illinois ranked 11th among 38 states in a study that looked at enrollment, funding and the quality of programs for 4-year-olds. Last year, the state was ranked 13th. The current financial crisis threatens to make the state’s standing even worse for 2010 and 2011. 

However, Illinois did maintain its 1st-place standing in preschool for 3-year-olds.

Conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, the study found these problems:

•    The percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in Illinois’ Preschool for All program declined by 2 percentage points, from 31 percent to 29 percent.

•    The amount of annual spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, has declined from $4,224 in 2002 to $3,438 in 2009.

•    The state’s ranking for the amount of state dollars spent on pre-kindergarten fell from 24th to 26th; for the amount of total dollars spent, the state’s ranking fell from 28th to 30th.  

Meanwhile, enrollment of 3-year-olds increased slightly, to 21 percent, and program quality continued to get high marks.

“One of the things Illinois is ranked highly on is the quality standards, but those are only as good as the money you put behind them,” says Steve Barnett, co-director of the institute and one of the report’s authors. “You have a state with declining enrollment and declining spending per child. That’s not a good situation.”

Illinois met nine of the 10 quality benchmarks outlined in the report – it was docked for not providing students with at least one meal during 2.5-hour preschool classes. “Particularly in a recession, children may not be getting enough meals at home,” Barnett says. “It can be as simple as cereal, bananas, and milk.”

Barnett also noted that having teachers run two, or even three preschool sessions a day – a common practice in Chicago – can threaten program quality, because it makes it harder for teachers to individualize instruction.

The study found similar funding and enrollment trends around the country. Funding per child dropped in 23 other states, and nationwide, the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in state pre-kindergarten programs increased by only 1 percentage point.

During the 2008-09 school year, total state preschool program enrollment stood at just 95,123 – a number that has since decreased, making it highly unlikely that the program will reach its original goal of serving 190,000 children by the year 2012.

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