Gov. Blagojevich Credit: photo by John Booz

Families with young children got a boost this summer when Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law several bills that increase funding for early childhood education, create greater oversight and allow more families access to childcare subsidies.

“We’ve seen the governor and Illinois legislators come together to address this long overdue issue,” says Maria Whelan, who heads the Day Care Action Council of Illinois. “This is a much better time to be a child than it has been in previous years.”

Following are snapshots of what happened

Early Childhood Block Grant

Legislators increased the Early Childhood Block Grant, a line item in the state’s budget, by $30 million, bringing the total for next year to $214 million. The increased funding will pay for an additional 25,000 3- and 4-year-olds who are considered at risk for academic failure to enroll in state pre-kindergarten programs over the next three years.

Illinois Early Learning Council

Previously, groups of experts who were convened to make recommendations on early childhood issues served at the will of the politician who assembled it. A new law established the Illinois Early Learning Council as a permanent body charged with coordinating, improving and expanding existing programs and services for children from birth to 5.

“This council will have teeth and the responsibility to see that the money is well spent,” says Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, who was named a co-chair of the council by the governor, who will appoint another chair from his staff. “Because it was written into law, it is not likely to disappear like an advisory group,” she adds.

The new council will be comprised of representatives from the Illinois State Board of Education, the departments of Human Services and Children and Family Services and other state agencies, as well as a host of other public and private stakeholders. (Details: SB 565)

Income eligibility for childcare subsidies

Initially, income eligibility for the state’s Child Care Assistance Program was set at 50 percent of the state’s median income by using 1997 figures. No provisions were made, however, to updates those figures annually. By 2003, many families were deemed ineligible for child care assistance despite their need. The new law updates eligibility guidelines to 2004 income levels and mandates automatic increases at the rate of inflation each year. An additional 14,000 children and their families will qualify for the program. (Details: SB 301, HB 294)

Set-aside for zero-to-3 programs increased

A new bill was passed that increases the current mandatory funding earmarked for zero-to-3 programs to current spending levels. The set-aside had been mandated at 8 percent of the Early Childhood Block Grant, however 11 percent was being spent annually. Current service levels will be maintained for 40,000 children and their families. (Details: HB 2235)

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