After years of budget cuts, enrollment in state-funded preschool programs in Illinois has fallen to levels not seen in nearly a decade – before the state rolled out its ambitious Preschool for All initiative, according to a new report by Voices for Illinois Children.

Since 2009, state funding for preschool programs has dropped by more than 25 percent. In the same period, enrollment decreased from an all-time high of 95,000 to 70,000.voices for illinois children graphic

“Illinois has been a leader in early childhood education in the past, and after a long period of progress we’ve been watching these gains erode,” said Lisa Christensen Gee, a policy analyst for Voices for Illinois Children and co-author of the report. “We need to ensure that the General Assembly understands the significance and importance of making these investments, both in good and bad economic times.”

While the state kept funding for early childhood program steady for the 2015 fiscal year, it’s unclear how a projected $2 billion decline in income tax revenues set to take place in January would affect these and other programs.

Theresa  Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Education, said the report reflects the fact there is far greater need for services than there are resources in Illinois.

“I think it is a budget issue,” she said. “We have many people on both sides of the aisle who are committed to early childhood education who understand its importance […].For sure, the governor has expressed his support and understanding that it’s a critical issue.”

While state funds are limited, Hawley’s office has successfully pursued other federal grant opportunities related to early childhood education, including millions of dollars in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants. She said Illinois will also be preparing an application for a new $250 million preschool development grant competition that was announced earlier this week.

The Voices report, titled “Disparities in Access to Preschool in Illinois,” also uses American Community Survey (ACS) data to analyze enrollment in all kinds of programs — both public and private. Overall enrollment went up from 49 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2008, but has since remained steady at about 54 percent.

However, significant gaps exist between racial groups. About 58 percent of white children and 55 percent of black children attend some sort of preschool, yet only 40 percent of Hispanic children are enrolled. Research has suggested that the lower enrollment rates among Latino children can be partially attributed to income, language barriers and distrust of government programs. In addition, available preschool slots in Latino neighborhoods have simply not kept up with the growth of the population. Hawley said that’s one reason the state has made grants available in recent years to build or expand early childhood facilities in the communities that most need them.

Still, says Martin Torres, policy analyst for the Latino Forum, the state Legislature needs to reexamine its priorities in order to ensure that the highest-need communities are getting the limited resources that are out there.

“Latino children continue to be underrepresented and underserved in the state’s Preschool for All programs,” he said. “We need to look at different policies and solutions to address that disparity, both when resources are available for new slots and when they aren’t.”

The report goes on to note disparities in preschool enrollment based on family income and parental education levels. Children at the poverty level, for example, accounted for 23.4 percent of the population under age 5 but only 18.7 percent of those enrolled in preschool. “The decline in state preschool funding, which has coincided with rising child poverty rates, has exacerbated the situation,” the report notes.

In the City of Chicago, preschool participation rates vary widely, with the highest participation on the more affluent North Side, and the lowest in the Northwest and Southwest sides – both heavily Latino communities. Similarly, some of the communities with the lowest preschool participation rates in Cook County have high concentrations of poverty and Latino children.

Despite the enrollment decline in state-funded programs, preschool-aged children in Illinois are still more likely to be enrolled in some sort of early education program than their counterparts in other states, according to the ACS data. While the Illinois enrollment rate is 54 percent, nationally just 48 percent of children are enrolled in some sort of preschool.

Enrollment nationally

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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