Promises kept–for now Going into the 2003 legislative session, Illinois faced a $5 billion budget deficit and a state full of needs. We worried children would be left behind.

But Gov. Rod Blagojevich kept his promise to take care of kids and the Legislature delivered. The budget includes more money for education, child care, health care and low--income families—many of them programs children’s advocates have been seeking for years.

While serious questions remain about Blagojevich’s revenue projections—including his questionable use of bonds to pay pension obligations and the planned sale of state buildings—there is a lot to like about his spending proposals.

Education funding increases by $330 million. Of that, pre--kindergarten spending will increase by $30 million, to $214 million, a priority that recognizes we get the biggest bang from education bucks spent on the youngest children. The money will open up space in pre--schools for another 8,200 at--risk children, giving them a better chance of arriving at kindergarten ready to learn.

Elementary and secondary education funding increases by $300 million. And most important, the base funding level per student will rise by $250 to $4,810. It remains well below $5,665, the level experts consider the accepted per--pupil cost of quality basic education in the state. But this is a big step in the right direction.

Another $50 million is being allocated for childcare assistance for low--income families. Some $20 million of that is for raising income qualifications, which were set at an outdated 1997 standard.

Under the new program, a single mother with one child can earn up to $22,613 and still get some help paying for childcare. This means as many as 16,000 more children will have a shot at quality childcare.

Health care funding will jump by $27 million. The vast majority of that will go to low--income parents, often toiling at two and three jobs to support their families. They make so little money that their children qualify for the government health insurance program, KidCare. Now, Family Care will allow the parents to qualify for coverage as well. The budget also includes another $4 million for KidCare.

Two other programs also will help low--income families. An increase in the minimum wage—from $5.15 to $6.50 an hour over the next 19 months—gives low--income workers a 26 percent raise. A change in the Illinois Earned Income Tax Credit will benefit 170,000 working poor families who make so little money they don’t even pay income taxes. Under the federal EITC, those hard--working lowest--income families get a tax refund anyway. Now they’ll get a refund from the state as well.

So, 2003 is a good year for kids. Will 2004 be good too? It is not at all clear.

The governor plugged the holes this year, but he didn’t make any of the necessary structural changes—revamping the education funding system, for example—that would lead to long--term fiscal health. The state faces another fiscal crisis next year. And this time there won’t be any real estate to auction off.

The learning curve for recalls Learning Curve, the Chicago--based company that sells a variety of high--end toys, including Lamaze brand baby toys, has a solid reputation among parents. Most parents would be surprised to hear Learning Curve was selling a baby product covered in lead paint.

But it was. The company has voluntarily recalled 3,800 toys shipped to retailers in March. The Lamaze Flower Stroller Wrap has a plastic flower that babies can slide along a green--painted wire. The Lamaze Soft Bead Buddies has plastic beads and stuffed animal heads that babies can slide along a blue--painted wire. Both allow babies to have fun while stirring up harmful lead dust.

Learning Curve, now owned by RC2, believed the toys were safe, based on tests performed in labs in China. The company learned about the lead paint only after shipping the toys—and immediately recalled the products, according to David Stetin, manager of product integrity.

Learning Curve did the right thing. Almost 95 percent of the toys have been returned. Sadly, that means some parents don’t know about the recall. What they don’t know can hurt their kids.

We parents have to be vigilant. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is watching, but we need to pay attention to what the commission is saying. Easier said than done when you’re busy changing diapers, mopping up spills, running car pools and monitoring homework.

Chicago Parent can help. Beginning this month, we’ll run a monthly list of recalls in the ShortStuff section. You will find a list of children’s products recalled in the last two months on page 17.

Kids Eat Chicago

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