Gov. JB Pritzker calls for universal preschool in Illinois by 2027

FILE - Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a news conference at the Chicago Family Health Center on the South Side, Aug. 4, 2022, in Chicago. On Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, Pritzker proposed a $350 million expansion in pre-school education. His “Smart Start Illinois” plan would add 5,000 seat for 3- and 4-year-olds this fall, with plans to ramp up the program to 20,000 in future years. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, File)

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. JB Pritzker called Wednesday for making preschool available to every 3- and 4-year-old in the state within four years, starting with a $440 million investment to bring 5,000 additional children into the program this fall.

Details about the “Smart Start Illinois” program dominated the fifth annual State of the State and budget address by the Democratic governor, who easily won reelection in November and has hinted at an eventual presidential bid.

“It will make our state the best place in the nation to raise young children,” Pritzker said in the speech to a joint session of the Legislature.

He envisions a four-year plan in which annual increases in funding – although smaller than in the initial year – would make room for the approximately 20,000 children whose families desire pre-K but can’t because of a lack of space.

In the first year, $75 million would go toward the existing account funding pre-K, a 12.5% increase in the budget that currently serves 89,000 kids. That funds space for the additional 5,000 learners, all outside of Chicago. Chicago Public Schools have their own preschool program.

But the plan goes beyond classroom learning. There’s $40 million for early intervention when a child is found with a learning impediment, such as a speech delay, and $5 million for Department of Human Services home visits to help families with parenting, school and more.

“We’re attempting to cover the lowest income kids who don’t have spots available to them first, but it will also depend upon where the availability [of space] can be made in this fiscal year,” Pritzker said. “There may be places where it will take us a couple of years to build out the capability.”

In a Tuesday briefing with news reporters, he insisted the time is ripe for opening the school door to more kids earlier in life, citing academic studies projecting that there’s a potential return of as much as $7 for every $1 invested in early education.

“It’s a plan that will make our system more equitable, focusing in particular on children and families who have less ability to access quality programs, and investing in a workforce made up largely of women and people of color,” Pritzker said.

The budget also includes $100 million to build facilities to house the expanded programs. There’s $70 million to expand participation in childcare for parents who need to work or attend school by increasing the income threshold, and $20 million to revamp the provider-payment system.

Critically important is $130 million for what Pritzker says would be a first-in-the-nation “Childcare Workforce Compensation Contract” to lure providers to an understaffed field, give it stability and increase providers’ pay over four years to as much as $19 an hour.

About 10 states offer universal preschool, including neighboring Wisconsin. Colorado is gearing up to offer it this fall, and Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week proposed $300 million for schooling, hiring teachers and transporting 5,600 4-year-olds.

Pritzker declined to discuss other initiatives he would propose in the coming year after a $50 billion budget in the current year. Other state leaders urging budgetary constraint did leave room for enhanced educational programs.

“There are so many different programs that are meritorious but when you have limited funds... for this next year, they’re looking pretty good, but we always need to err on the conservative side of not spending everything,” Democratic Comptroller Susana Mendoza said. “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”

Mendoza said education is an area where additional spending is called for, but she would like to see better funding of needs-based college grants.

Republican Senate Minority Leader John Curran, of Downers Grove, warned of a coming fiscal cliff and the need for budget restraint, but called on Pritzker to expand help for working families – including in early childhood learning and child care.

He also bemoaned the underfunding of programs for the developmentally disabled. Despite a huge increase in 2021, it still was hundreds of millions of dollars short of what a federal judge ordered.

“We can afford to do this,” Pritzker said “And as every provider, teacher and parent in this state will tell you, we can’t afford to wait.”


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