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Restore children’s access to preschool

By Gaylord Gieseke

This spring, Illinois lawmakers must make an important choice: Will they give thousands of children an opportunity to get a jumpstart in life by attending preschool, or will they continue to neglect this vital investment in our state’s future? Lately, they have been making the wrong choice, closing the door to more and more kids. It’s time to get back on track.  

For more than a decade, our state steadily expanded children’s access to preschool. We know that when kids attend quality preschool, their overall cognitive and social-emotional development improves, enabling them to enter kindergarten ready to learn. And we know that investments in preschool pay off for the state, as well as for local communities, in both the short term and long term. High-quality preschool improves academic success, reduces high-school dropout rates and increases lifetime earnings.  

Preschool can also play an important role in reducing poverty and inequality by giving more kids the opportunity to reach their full potential. When children get off to a strong start, they are far more likely to grow up to be contributing members of their communities — creating a stronger economy, making our communities safer and making future generations better off.  

Unfortunately, Illinois is losing ground, leaving thousands of children without the opportunity for a stronger start in life.  

The state has made deep cuts in the Early Childhood Block Grant, which funds not only preschool but also coordinated services to enhance the development of at-risk infants and toddlers. In the last four years, nearly $80 million in cuts have resulted in an estimated 20,000 fewer children attending state-supported preschool. In Sangamon County, there were more than 1,900 preschool slots in the 2008-09 school year compared to only about 1,300 this year — a steep decline of 32 percent.  

Reducing kids’ access to preschool is a choice, not a necessity. Last spring, both the State Board of Education and the governor recommended restoring $20 million for the Early Childhood Block Grant. But the General Assembly instead chose to cut an additional $25 million, forcing school districts and community organizations to turn away thousands more kids from preschool.  

While legislators are constrained by the poor condition of the state’s finances, there is still ample room for them to do both the right thing and the smart thing. At minimum, they should restore the $25 million cut last year. But, if they truly want to invest in our future, they should go much further and significantly boost Illinois’ investment in early childhood education.

Other states and communities are making preschool a priority, even with limited resources.  Oklahoma, a low-tax, conservative state, has been a national leader in expanding children’s access to high-quality preschool. Nearly 75 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds attended state-funded preschool in 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick recently proposed eliminating wait lists for all the state’s early childhood education initiatives, including preschool. A few months ago in Texas, residents of San Antonio approved a referendum to expand access to preschool.  

Meanwhile, our elected officials are taking us backwards. While Illinois’ fiscal problems are real and must be urgently addressed, policymakers cannot use those problems as an excuse. This spring, they should reinvest in the future of our state and our communities by ensuring that more children can gain the benefits of early childhood education.

Gaylord Gieseke is president of Voices for Illinois Children. This is part of a monthly column series, “Jump Start Illinois: Perspectives on Helping Kids Succeed in School and Life,” by different writers. Look for them at the end of each month in Our Towns.

Read the article at SJ-R.com.