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Illinois governor floats universal preschool, expanded day care during State of the State address

The address is set to start at noon from Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois' governor on Wednesday proposed universal schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds, starting with $440 million to finance 5,000 additional seats this fall, more child care opportunities and facility construction.

Following a resounding re-election victory in November and amid hints of a bid for higher office, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker will outline his “Smart Start Illinois” program in his fifth annual State of the State and budget address before a joint session of the House and Senate at noon. 

But some state leaders are calling for a balanced, affordable budget because economists in some quarters are warning of a downturn. There are also predictions of the state again running a deficit by 2025.

The budget presented by Pritzker will cover the 2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

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.

“Smart Start Illinois will make us the best place in the nation to raise young children," Pritzker told reporters in a preview briefing Tuesday.

“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.

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.”

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 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, also 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 childcare.

He also bemoaned the underfunding of programs for the developmentally disabled. Despite a huge increase in 2021, it was still 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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