Is Illinois making the grade when it comes to public preschool
According to Steve Barnett, director of the nonpartisan National
Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers
University, we're a bit above average. We are 15th in the nation
for the number of low-income 4-year-olds we are serving, at roughly
29 percent. And we serve 20 percent of eligible 3-year-olds - the
highest percentage in the nation.
Still, Barnett points out, in 2006 Illinois passed a law called
"Preschool for All." It's goal to fulfill the "all" part of its
mission was 2012. In that regard, we have failed.
Barnett's assessment comes from a yearly study by NIEER called
the State Preschool Yearbook, which ranks and compares state
preschool funding. Overall, the Yearbook found that state funding
for pre-K decreased by $60 million in 2011, which comes out to
about $145 per child. That is despite the fact that states received
$127 million of federal stimulus money for preschool education.
Illinois has high quality public preschools, meeting 9 out of 10
NIEER quality standards. But it doesn't reach enough kids.
At this point, Illinois' pre-K funding only goes to low-income
and at-risk populations. The second phase of Preschool for All - to
serve families making up to four times the federal poverty level -
has never been implemented for lack of funds.
Barnett warns that spending less money on more kids will only
lead to daycare, not preschool, and the benefits aren't the
"Unless more money comes into the equation," says Barnett,
"you're just throwing it away."
State public funding is separate from the federal Head Start
program. When you add in Head Start, Illinois serves about 40
percent of the low-income population.
So why is this important?
"Low income urban kids without a good preschool education, on
average they're 18 months behind," says Barnett. Their recognition
of numbers and their vocabulary, not to mention their socialization
skills, are not up to their peers who attended preschool. While
kindergarten can teach them, it's teaching everybody else, too.
"Even if you make the same progress as a higher income kid does,
you're still 18 months behind," says Barnett. "The achievement gap
in the 12th grade is largely there when you walk in the
There are some things kids do learn when they enter kindergarten
behind their peers. "You learn that you're a failure," says
Barnett, and "that's a path to a high school dropout."
The State Preschool Yearbook is in its 10th year. And looking at
the statistics, it seems that the country has advanced in the
number of kids enrolled in public preschools. Overall, 14 percent
more 4-year-olds and 2 percent more 3-year-olds are enrolled in
public preschool now than in 2001/2002 - and many of those numbers
were higher before the recession hit. Illinois moved up from
serving 22 percent of 4-year-olds in 01/02 to 29 percent in 2011.
During the same period, the state moved from serving 8 percent of
3-year-olds to 20 percent in 2011.
Yet the amount Illinois spends per child has gone down in the
last decade, from $4,394 per child in 2002 to $3,449 today.
Governor Quinn has proposed adding another $20 million to preschool
education in next year's budget, but Illinois State Board of
Education spokesperson Mary Fergus says that "it will be very
challenging" to get that increase.
"We know that many agencies are facing 9 and 10 percent cuts,"
says Fergus. "It is a very tough budget year."
The Early Childhood Block Grant that funds early childhood
education in Illinois has decreased by $55 million in the last
three years, from $380.2 million in Fiscal Year 2009 to and $325.1
million in FY 2012.
This week, the state learned that it can reapply for the federal
government's Early Learning Challenge, which is part of the
Deptartment of Education's Race to the Top initiative. If it wins,
the state can get another $35 million.
NIEER estimates that in order to
fully fund quality preschools, states will have to spend $4,800 per
Policy wonks can go to here to download the Yearbook report, the
executive summary and various state reports.
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