The Preschool Plea: Advocates Waiting to See if President Obama Will Aid Education Efforts in IL

May 1, 2013

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
President Barack Obama’s promise in his State of the Union speech to push for universal, voluntary preschool invigorated early childhood advocates nationally and across Illinois. Could it help the state regain lost ground in building a system of preschool for all?

“Very, very much,” predicted Theresa Hawley, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development. “We don’t know a lot of details, [but] what they’re thinking about at the federal level matches well with what we have set as our priorities here in Illinois.”

The emerging outline of Obama’s initiative — federal matching funds targeting low-income 4-year-olds — gives early childhood advocates hope that Illinois could leverage federal dollars to restore some lost access to preschool programs. 

If Obama’s proposal is funded, Illinois appears ready to take advantage. In December 2012, the state won $35 million in the second round of the federal Race to the Top program’s Early Learning Challenge competition. The funds are helping Illinois accelerate its progress on quality ratings, standards and assessments that are likely to be required to participate in a federal universal preschool program. In a late February blog post, Steve Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research cited Illinois as one of 15 states that “might qualify [for universal preschool] with little or no change to state policy.” 

Illinois also needs the cash. Due to the recession and state budget cuts, nearly 22,000 fewer children attend state-funded preschool now than in 2009. Plus, the state’s backlog of bills has delayed payments to preschools and child-care centers, forcing some providers to close.

State advocates agree that new federal dollars for early childhood could replace some of the $80 million that the state’s existing universal preschool effort, Preschool for All, has lost since 2009. The White House budget released in April proposed $75 billion over 10 years for early childhood. However, until Congress approves the federal budget, there’s no way to tell whether Obama’s effort truly has legs or how much Illinois might stand to gain.

“It’s amazing the president proposed this, but we really have no sense of whether it would happen,” says Nancy Radner, director of Illinois policy for the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a leading advocate for early childhood education.

Without federal support, Illinois will be lucky to hold funding for early education level with the slightly more than $300 million allotted last fiscal year. During his March budget address, Gov. Pat Quinn heralded early childhood education as a top priority and flat-funded it in a budget otherwise filled with spending cuts. Though it’s too early to say whether that priority will hold through budget negotiations, the prospect of federal matching funds could make a case with legislators to spare early childhood from the budget axe.

Support for early childhood programs comes from surprising quarters. “I applaud the governor for his commitment to early childhood,” says House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego. “It’s an area where we have agreement. I’ve tried for a number of years to be as supportive of early childhood in the budgets as I can.” 

Cross cites the research on the benefits of early childhood education. “I can be with early childhood providers, with law enforcement officials, and everybody talks about the positives of catching kids and families from birth to 5 and how critical that is for their development. They’ve made their case, and I think it’s a strong one.”

In his State of the Union address, Obama said research on the cost-benefits of early childhood education makes the case for universal preschool: “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime,” he said. “In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children — like Georgia or Oklahoma — studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own.”

The research is actually a little more complicated. Obama’s 7:1 benefit-cost figure originates from the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, a longitudinal observation of low-income children enrolled in a small, unusually high-quality preschool program. Critics charge that the federal effort is unlikely to produce programs of similar quality and focus. 

Research on state-funded preschool programs indicates more modest returns. A 2011 paper published in the journal Economics of Education Review estimated benefits of $3 to $4 for every dollar spent, in the form of higher future earnings for the children participating. However, other research shows that preschool can reduce special education costs. A 2005 report prepared for the Pennsylvania Department of Education by economist Clive Belfield projected a 12 percent reduction in special education expenditures if the state implemented a universal preschool program, and an 8 percent savings from a program targeted at select 4-year-olds.

Though debate continues about the size of the returns, a growing body of research supports investment in early childhood education. “Any serious state and local economic development strategy must include high-quality early childhood investments,” labor economist Tim Bartik wrote in a March 1, 2011, post to his blog, Investing in Kids. Bartik, an economist with the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a Michigan-based research center, has extensively studied preschool as a tool for economic development.

That argument has held sway in Illinois for much of the decade. In 2007, Illinois implemented Preschool for All, an expansion of previous early childhood grants to develop voluntary, universal preschool programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state, with the neediest families at the front of the line for services. The goal was to serve 190,000 3- and 4-year-olds by 2012. According to the Illinois Kids Count 2013 report by the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children, by 2009 the state was spending about $380 million to serve more than 95,000 children statewide, about half of all those eligible. 

But then the recession hit. By 2013, Preschool for All’s funding was down to $300 million, and the program was only reaching 78,883 eligible 3- and 4-year-olds, says Radner. “We have definitely lost ground.”

The state’s fiscal woes have forced some preschool centers out of business, though hard numbers on the closures are difficult to find. In a 2011 report mapping the state’s early childhood programs, four University of Illinois researchers noted: “The combination of funding reductions and late payments by the state to grantees resulted in the closure of some programs prior to the end of the 2010 school year. Some of these closures continued through the 2011 school year.”

In the 2011 edition of its annual State of Preschool yearbook, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked Illinois 15th among the states for access to state-funded preschool among 4-year-olds. (At press time, the 2012 edition had yet to be released.) For preschool access among 3-year-olds, Illinois led the nation, as it has since 2007, when Preschool for All was implemented. It also met nine of NIEER’s 10 quality benchmarks for state-funded preschool. However, the state’s per-child spending reached only the middle of the pack, making it difficult to address challenges such as increasing pay to attract and retain high-quality early educators.

For Fiscal Year 2014, which will begin July 1, the Illinois State Board of Education recommended a $40 million increase for early childhood education. That would expand funding by 13.3 percent, compared with Fiscal Year 2013, but would only make up about half the money lost since 2009. If the increase were implemented, about 10,500 more preschool children would be served than in FY ’13.

But that’s a nonstarter. Gov. Pat Quinn chose to flat-fund early childhood in his budget proposal and pitched it as a win. “I have preserved investment in early childhood education,” he said in his March 6 budget address. “These are tough times, but early childhood education for the youngest among us must be a top priority.”

Will early childhood funding go lower in the final budget? “It’s impossible to predict the outcome for any particular program right now,” says Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat from Chicago. “It will depend a lot on how the state can address the current funding issues: pensions, the cost of the employee contract, unpaid bills.”

On February 15, the White House released a fact sheet outlining some details of Obama’s universal preschool proposal. A new partnership with states would share the costs of providing preschool programs for all 4-year-olds from families whose incomes fell at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. Under current guidelines, children from a family of four that earns up to $46,100 annually would be eligible. 

Voices for Illinois Children estimates 75,000 Illinois 4-year-olds come from families in that income bracket. At most, they estimate, 45,000 of those children are now enrolled in state-funded preschool programs.

Though the funding mechanics haven’t been detailed yet, the White House fact sheet offers a broad outline: “The U.S. Department of Education will allocate dollars to states based on their share of 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families,” indicating that funds would be doled out by formula. However, to qualify for the money, state programs would have to meet strict criteria: early learning standards, plans for comprehensive data and assessment systems and qualified teachers in all funded preschool classrooms.

Qualifying states would also receive incentives to expand their programs to reach wealthier families, who would pay on a sliding scale, and for providing full-day kindergartens. In addition, Obama’s plan would invest in expanding two other existing programs for children from birth to age 3: Early Head Start and home visiting programs.

Experts say the federal program will likely give states a mix of strict insistence on evidence and results but flexibility in how they perform the work. “I would expect the initiative to have evidence-based guidelines and directives but flexibility for each state to implement after a rigorous planning process,” says Gaylord Gieseke, president of Voices for Illinois Children. “A lot of Obama’s thinking and [U.S Education Secretary] Arne Duncan’s thinking was based on what had gone on here in Illinois before they left.”

A possible model for the universal preschool program may also exist in the current federal-state partnership to promote home visitation programs, Gieseke added. Obama’s health care overhaul included a provision to fund home visits targeted at mothers with children from birth to age 5 to help them help their children be safe, healthy and meet developmental milestones. Home visitors also help families access services, such as screening for developmental delays.

“We got between $35 [million] and $45 million over five years to implement a highly structured initiative,” Giesecke says. “We’re serving more kids but also developing infrastructure,” such as creating governance systems that integrate child welfare, health, human service and education.

A similar program involving matching funds would give Illinois lawmakers incentive to preserve early childhood funds. Most of the state’s early childhood money goes to the Early Childhood Block Grant, which funded more than 900 preschool programs in FY ’12. “That’s where we’d get matching funds” for any federal preschool program, says Ounce of Prevention’s Radner. 

In addition to having a pool of funds from which to match federal dollars, Illinois shows other significant signs of readiness to jump on a federal universal preschool effort. By mid-April, the state expected to unveil its new Quality Rating Improvement System to help parents find high-quality preschool programs regardless of setting. Those include Head Start (the federal program for low-income preschoolers), child care and school-based prekindergarten, among other programs. 

The improvement system will rate programs on both structural and process indicators of quality, says Hawley. Structural indicators include class size and teacher-student ratio, teacher qualifications and curriculum. Process indicators assess the quality of the classroom environment, activities offered and teacher-student interactions.

“It will be very challenging” to earn top rank in the system, Hawley says. Where some states rate programs on an aggregate number of points earned across categories, Illinois will insist that programs meet the rating level’s standards within each category to earn the rating. “We’re setting a rigorous bar.” 

In January, the state school board released a draft of state early learning standards, revised to align with Common Core State Standards for kindergarten, a tough new set of K-12 learning standards that 45 states have adopted.

The state is also piloting its Kindergarten Individual Development Survey — an assessment based on a teacher’s periodic observations of each kindergartner in five areas: English language (for English language-learners), literacy, self-regulation, social development and mathematics. The goal of the process is to identify gaps in school readiness, guide classroom instruction and help school, district and state leaders allocate resources to address the gaps.

“We have a lot of things in place, or are working on them,” Radner says.

All the work already under way on early childhood education has raised hopes that Illinois will benefit from a federal push. “I’m extremely excited about the president’s announcement, and I hope we’re one of the states that get the dollars,” says Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, an Aurora Democrat who chairs the House Elementary and Secondary Education committee. “We’re right in the sweet spot of taking those dollars and putting them to good use.”

Maureen Kelleher is a free-lance education writer. She has written about early childhood education for Education Week, the nation’s newspaper of record in K-12 education. Previously she was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago, an independent school-reform news journal.

Illinois Issues, May 2013