Last month, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced his commitment to education for Illinois’s youngest students with Smart Start Illinois, a $250 million program that aims to provide every child in the state with a preschool education.
What is Smart Start Illinois?
Smart Start Illinois is a plan to make preK affordable and accessible to all young students by opening more preschools, funding early education grants and offering raises and scholarships to the childcare workforce.
How will Smart Start Illinois make preK accessible?
Beginning in fiscal year 2024, the program plans to open 5,000 new early education centers for 3- and 4-year olds across Illinois. There will also be an additional $75 million in funding for Early Childhood Block Grants, which translates to an additional 20,000 kids being able to afford preK in Illinois.
Research shows that investing in early education yields higher high school graduation and college attendance rates, as well as greater lifetime earnings.
“When we build up our children to be strong, resilient and well-rounded adults, we build the foundation for a thriving society,” Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton said in a news release.
There is potential that spending big bucks on education now could save the state some money in the long-run, as investing in early education is also correlated with lower crime rates and lower total human services spending.
How will Smart Start Illinois staff qualified educators?
In the midst of a state-wide teacher shortage, simply building more early learning centers will not provide children with a quality education. An Educator Shortage Study conducted in the fall of 2022 found that 2,728 early educator positions across the state were either vacant or filled by under qualified staff. This shortage was especially prominent in rural areas in east-central and west-central Illinois.
To hire and retain qualified educators, Smart Start is allocating $130 million to stabilize teachers’ salaries and give childcare providers a raise. Dr. Sandra Osorio, the Director of Teacher Education at Erikson Institute, says this monetary investment is an important start, but supporting our children’s teachers must go beyond just paying them more.
“I think a lot of times [new] teachers in the field feel very alone,” says Osorio. “They come across a situation where they have to get a child services, maybe multilingual services or a child has an identified disability, and they’re just not sure where to go. I think a lot of it just starts with them feeling supported.”
Osorio recently helped develop a new Triple Endorsement Certification that focuses on addressing the whole child and involving the community in young children’s education. After all, a child’s first educator is often a parent or family member at home, not their preschool teacher.
“The education right now really pushes this idea of there being this “standard child” that we all teach — but that’s not the reality. We know students have multiple, diverse identities,” Osorio says. “Teachers need to have a foundation to serve multilingual students and students with identified disabilities. Because the reality is, these children are in all classrooms.”
Smart Start also includes $12 million in funding for higher education scholarships for childcare providers and students who plan to pursue a career in early childhood education.
Osorio says the financial burden of going to school to become a certified teacher is a major barrier for many childcare workers, so these scholarships are a start to increasing the number of qualified preK teachers in Illinois.
She adds that the Illinois Board of Education could make improvements that make achieving a teacher certification more accessible, such as allowing current childcare workers to complete their student teaching hours at their current place of employment instead of leaving the workforce to attend school.
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