Everything You Need to Know About Universal Pre-K in Illinois

Read on for details about the Build Back Better Act.

Universal pre-K has been a buzzword in the education community for years. Through the Build Back Better Act, which was passed in November 2021, the federal government significantly funds the integration of early care and education from infancy up until kindergarten. Ideally, this should result in more, and more consistently, high-quality care for children across their earliest years of life.

We sat down with Marie Donovan, associate professor of teacher education and program director of Early Childhood Education at DePaul University and member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education Faculty Advisory Council, to find out what universal pre-K is and why Chicago area parents should know about it.

What is universal pre-K?

Universal pre-K is the expansion of preschool opportunities to children ages 3-5 years-old from all families, not only those eligible for free or reduced tuition in current Head Start and Illinois State Prekindergarten Programs.

Who benefits from current federal programs?

Preschool for All, our state’s current program, focuses primarily on recruiting 4-5-year-olds only. Right now, access to publicly funded five-day pre-K is limited to only about 20 percent of all 3- and 4-year-old children in Illinois. BBB will expand that access to the almost 250,000 other 3-4-year-olds currently living in our state.

How does universal pre-K help parents?

The proposed universal pre-K is the closest all working parents of young children in the U.S. come to benefiting from government-sponsored support for quality early care and education of their 3-to-5-year-old children akin to that enjoyed by parents in many other developed countries. While Head Start and similar programs have existed for decades, only a portion of working parents meet their eligibility requirements. Universal pre-K enables working parents to rest assured, as they head to work, their children will thrive through high-quality care and education.

What are the cons to universal pre-K?

It will take a while for new universal pre-K rooms to get opened up around the city and state. Additionally, there may be costs to families for universal preschool programs’ before- and after-care for working parents. However, these costs will be on a sliding scale (no one will pay more than 7 percent of annual income for child care).

Are there any misconceptions of universal pre-K?

Universal pre-K is not forcing’ parents to send their preschool-age child to the local public school’s pre-K program. Under BBB, parents will have a choice in selecting their children’s pre-K program — public, private (including home-based and faith-based), or Head Start. If a family has a child currently in a toddler program at a local, privately own child care center that has preschool classrooms, that child can stay there and be funded through BBB’s free universal preschool benefit. The center’s owners will need to comply with certain federal regulations regarding quality and staff backgrounds (among others), but will receive funding through BBB to amend its program to become universal.

What is the timeline for implementation?

Work on making these changes happen is already underway. Universal pre-K will be implemented. State agency heads have been on endless webinars ever since BBB passed to learn about how to set up internal state systems to access the federal dollars. Forecasts vary for when significant changes to current programs will happen. Some experts I’ve heard speak observed that it will take a good three months for state and local government agencies, policy foundations, and advocacy groups to work through how to phase in these changes. The federal government is pushing states to work quickly, to get Building Back Better. The pressure is on —which is good.

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Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning journalist and bestselling children's book author. She is the mom of three little ladies who keep her on her toes.


  1. As an early childhood educator who wants ALL children ages 0-5 to have access to a free education this is very exciting news. Working to establish a firm educational foundation for our future productive children’s overall livelihood is well overdue and appreciated! It is about time, early childhood education is seen as a necessity and not an option! Feeling hopeful

  2. Working with the Illinois PFA program, I have seen the need for teachers, many programs across the state have vacancies in the way of staff. There is a shortage now, and with more classes, there will be a dire need for more qualified teachers.


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