Preschool report ranks Illinois 15th in nation

Is Illinois making the grade when it comes to public preschool funding?

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.

The percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds served in Illinois has grown. But the funding has gone backwards.

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 same.

“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 kindergarten door.”

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.”

Illinois Combined Spending on Schools

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 child.

Policy wonks can go to here to download the Yearbook report, the executive summary and various state reports.

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