Eye On Illinois: Care about early childhood? Time to make a difference

Get involved.

A guiding principle of this column (in addition to encouraging voting and seeking public information) is giving readers pathways for directly affecting the government that exists to serve us all. But readers have taught me over the years they don’t always know where or how to get started. Let’s fix that.

Friday, Gov. JB Pritzker announced his administration will direct $1.6 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funding to help revamp early childhood services. According to Capitol News Illinois, that includes $140 million in direct grants for child care providers going out the door in the next three weeks.

The plan also includes launching a new early childhood division inside the Department of Human Services. The formal debut is set for July 1, but the transition is in progress. Here’s where you can help:

Over the next 18 months the state will create a regional network of early childhood planning councils, which are supposed to ensure local needs are taken into account when designing a statewide system. Also, in partnership with Northern Illinois University, the state will create an Early Childhood Transformation Team to assemble action plans for the councils’ ideas, as well as those from the Illinois Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding.

Pritzker created that commission in 2019 and called the suggestions in its Ready Illinois report “a seismic shift from the status quo,” as good an indicator as any that he expects big swings and measurable successes. Being aware of these ideas at this early stage means a chance to be directly involved in implementation.

Not everyone is passionate about early childhood programs, and that’s understandable. But for those who are, now is a time to act. Do you use a child care provider? Make sure they’re applying for state grants to cover rent or staff and training. Does your local school have an early childhood program? Perhaps someone in administration can explain what they’re hearing from the state.

If you want to be part of a planning council, contact your representative or senator and get your name on a list. Not everyone gets a spot of course, but sometimes the journey to involvement begins with a simple email that says “I care about young kids who need help, I read about the governor’s ideas in the newspaper and I want to be involved in making things better.”

This undertaking is massive and expensive. Long-term success depends on a sustainable funding model. Money aside, the effort still hinges on a valid understanding of what needs to change on the local level, and that information is only coming from people who truly know the particulars.

If that’s you, here’s your chance. Get involved.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Local News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.