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Great holiday gift: more preschool slots in Chicago

More preschool opportunities should be a top goal in Chicago education.

By REBECCA NIEVES-HUFFMAN

As the holidays are upon us, it’s time to focus on what we can do for our city’s least fortunate. This is especially true when it comes to education, a topic that always inspires strong views, and with good reason; after all, children’s futures are at stake. The political rhetoric is already heating up in the 2015 elections. Still, some facts are beyond debate. Among these is the well-documented fact that pre-kindergarten education is vital to setting children on a trajectory that maximizes their potential throughout their academic and professional lives.

In light of this, we feel that Mayor Emanuel’s plan to expand pre-K to 2,600 low-income Chicago kids by issuing social impact bonds is excellent public policy that all Chicagoans should support — and a fitting holiday gift to our city’s most vulnerable yet most important population.

The first five years of a child’s life are a unique period of rapid cognitive development in which he or she will either gain skills vital to succeed in the future or simply miss the window. There really is no substitute for educating kids at this very young age in order to set them up for success. We recently spoke to a group of faith leaders in Englewood who are echoing these concerns in their sermons each week — the stakes are too high.

The research also shows that this is especially true for children in low-income families, for whom access to quality educational programs is often lacking. Disparities in early-childhood education are, perhaps more than any other factor, the cause of socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps and the resulting “school-to-prison pipeline” that plagues Chicago’s youth. Pre-K is the ultimate preventative measure; in fact, reading level as early as third grade is a strong predictor of high-school dropout rates.

Instead of acknowledging the important impact this proposal will have on children, the critics are bending over backwards to use it to attack the mayor.

Social impact bonds are an innovative method of funding programs for the public good through private financing governments wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. The bonds are “pay for performance,” meaning funders don’t get repaid until a third-party evaluator determines that the program is effective.

Because educating children better from the beginning has been proven to save significant public funds in the form of remedial education and other costs, social impact bonds are exactly what Chicago needs to help kids now. In addition, the resulting savings will free up additional education funds in the long term. In the unlikely scenario that the children in these programs don’t show the expected progress, the city would keep the private financing, meaning taxpayer dollars would not be at risk. Still, the opponents of this program insist on telling us the sky is falling.

In the spirit of the holidays, it’s time to recognize public servants like Aldermen JoAnn Thompson (16th), Howard Brookins (21st), John Pope (10th), and Emma Mitts (37th) who make the “nice list” for their support of this important policy to improve education for kids who need it most.

At the same time, our organization will hold accountable those politicians, like Aldermen John Arena (45th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), and Toni Foulkes (15th) who opposed this important policy — who would rather let our youngest students fail than allow the city to provide free early education — and we urge other Chicago voters to do the same.

Rebeca Nieves-Huffman is the Illinois State Director of Democrats for Education Reform