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Illinois was rebuilding its early learning system. Then COVID-19 happened.


Preschoolers dig in a sand table at Christopher House, a charter school in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side.

Cassie Walker Burke/Chalkbeat

Last school year, Illinois added 6,000 preschool seats, joined a select group of four states to earmark sizable increases for early learning expansion, and hit eight of 10 national benchmarks for quality, according to a report released Wednesday that compares preschool programs state by state.

Normally Illinois might point to the annual report, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, as a source of pride. 

But this snapshot reflects pre-COVID-19 Illinois. Can the state’s early learning momentum survive the disruption? 

“Illinois was making progress on every front, with relatively high quality standards, new money, more kids, and a big (federal planning) grant. It’s almost unnerving now to say the future looked bright,” said W. Steven Barnett, an economist who co-directs the early education institute that published the report.

But, he said, Illinois has a few reasons for cautious optimism. It has political will to expand early education — a longtime cause for Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a notable early education philanthropist before he took office. The state also has launched a massive reorganization in how it funds early education, including a 29-person funding commission.

What’s more, Barnett said, the pandemic is clearly identifying fissures in the system, as public services have failed to provide food and other necessities during the crisis to needy families with children under 5. 

“Is there a way (leaders) can take advantage of what they’ve learned and reorganize quickly to do better?” he asked.  

Phyllis Glink, a co-chair of the state’s advisory Early Learning Council, said that Illinois stepped up early in the shutdown to help child care centers, with bonuses for emergency licensees and continued financial support for centers that closed.

“Our leaders in government have been extraordinarily responsive in this moment and thoughtful about the policies they have put in place. They are trying to support providers in this environment as much as they can,” she said.

In a state that is facing an estimated COVID-related budget hole of $6.2 billion for the next budget year, uncertainty prevails. In early education, that could impact how much, and for how long, the state can continue to support providers during stay-at-home orders and whether it can assist centers teetering on bankruptcy since the state is continuing public support, but most lost private tuition when they closed. 

Before coronavirus, the governor had pledged to invest more in the early education workforce, a group that is predominantly women of color and chronically underpaid. It’s not clear whether such commitments can withstand the coronavirus crisis.

Student and family needs are certain to grow, too. Beyond the disruption of academic and developmental progress, some youngsters will carry the stress of their parents’ job losses, health problems, food and shelter insecurity, and other cascading impacts from the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We’re going to have to think about how we pivot at this moment,” said Glink, who added there is a philanthropic effort underway to help child care providers cut through red tape in applying for COVID-19 loans and other government assistance. “I’m going to remain an optimist even though I realize we will have serious financial challenges in our state, and we have families with serious challenges. If we are going to get them back into the workforce, we’re going to have to get serious about their needs.”

Illinois expects to receive $115 million in federal aid for early education, plus $570 million for emergency responses in K-12 schools.

The price of covering the state’s education and child care emergency bills could well dwarf those numbers.

According to the Rutgers’ institute’s yearbook, Illinois added 6,000 preschool spots last year — one of the highest single-year bumps of any state — and was one of only four states to boost spending by more than $25 million for 3- and 4-year-olds. The state enrolled about 81,000 3- and 4-year-olds in publicly funded programs in 2018-19, the year the report analyzed. That’s 26% of children eligible.

The state also was singled out for securing federal money to draft a new road map for its child care system, for rolling out a new kindergarten assessment and data dashboard to more clearly spotlight problem areas, and convening a funding commission — a key step for repairing a fractured system.

Despite those advances, the state still lands at 26th in the nation on its state spending per preschooler. Illinois spends about $4,800 per child, less than the national average of $5,374. The District of Columbia spends the most, at $15,970 per child, followed by New Jersey and Oregon.

Illinois also served fewer 3-year-olds than before in public programs, a troubling statistic for those who watch such numbers closely. While Chicago Public Schools lost some 3-year-olds as it pivoted to target 4-year-olds, it’s not clear why statewide numbers fell.

Ireta Gasner, of the national early education advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, said she worries about how Illinois will keep up its recent momentum while expanding services, all while the economy might come back piecemeal. 

“What does it look like to start back up?” she said, including early childhood education services. 

But she said she’s also thinking about adaptations that educators are making to improve the field. One such effort is a rapid tele-health training program for early childhood therapists who work with young children with developmental disabilities. 

As of Tuesday, more than three out of every four credentialed early intervention providers in the state were enrolled. Most of those had already completed the training.

“The element of keeping families connected to the system is crucial,” Gasner said, “so in this stressful time they are not cut adrift, and then we are unlikely to find them when things return back to normal.”

Our youngest children are “the only future we have,” said Barnett. “It’s very real. There’s not another future. If we miss investing in them now, there’s not a second chance.”

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