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Emanuel rolls out long-awaited phase-in of universal preschool

Mayor Rahm Emanuel visits a pre-Kindergarten program Wednesday at Truman College, 1145 W. Wilson Ave. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday dangled a $175 million pre-election perk that could provide a substantial savings for Chicago families with young children, but the scripted roll-out offered more questions than answers.

The mayor who endured a 2012 teachers strike so he could implement his longer school day and school year is promising to provide universal full-day pre-school for 24,000 four-year-olds by 2021. That is, if he’s still mayor by then.

During a campaign-style fireside chat at Truman College, Emanuel said the phase-in would cost $175 million annually by the fourth year.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited a pre-Kindergarten program at Truman College on Wednesday morning to announce the rollout of universa

Chicago Public Schools will pay for it with increased state funding tied to the budget deal making its way through the Illinois General Assembly as well as extra money built into the school funding overhaul approved last year, the mayor said.

“As the state … continues to fund the formula that they passed, we have the resources to do universal full day pre-K. … [Under] the budget that they’ve agreed to, CPS will get additional resources. The peace dividend, what I say after a 50-year battle, is gonna go to universal, full-day pre-K,” Emanuel said.

“There’s more need than we have resources. This was a collective decision that, if we’re gonna get the additional resources, this is the best investment we can make.”

The long-awaited program will start this fall with “180 full-day classrooms” serving 3,700 pre-school kids who live in “communities with the most children in need.” Those children must come from households where the annual income for a family of four is no greater than $46,325.

Additional classes will be added in each of the next four years.

City Hall said the 24,000-student figure was calculated from U.S. Census figures, factoring how many families took advantage of full-day kindergarten.

But neither the mayor nor Schools CEO Janice Jackson could explain what would happen if wealthy families sending their kids to private pre-school switch to the free program. Some of those families already pay $13,900 in tuition for full-day programs for four-year-olds offered at 10 CPS schools that will now waive that tuition during the four-year phase-in.

Other lingering questions include the cost of building the additional classroom space needed for universal full-day pre-K.

The CPS capital budget calls for construction of three early-childhood centers. Jackson said that’s part of the plan. Those centers haven’t been funded or built yet — but she said she doesn’t want to use a lot of temporary classrooms or additions.

“I’d like to see more integrated early childhood programs because I think it’s a strategy to have more integrated schools,” Jackson said. “If we get people in our schools sooner and they see the high-quality education that’s being provided and they see the educators in these buildings delivering on the promise of public education that we all want to see in schools throughout this country, they’re more likely to send their kids to a CPS school. They’re more likely to send their kids to more diverse schools. That’s really the strategy.”

Even if the integration strategy succeeds, Jackson could not promise that wealthy white families switching to free pre-K would be guaranteed a seat in that elementary school for kindergarten and going forward.

“Our enrollment system does prioritize people who live in the community. That’s always gonna be the first preference — and siblings,” Jackson said.

“But we are talking to principals about how can we keep more of the students in our early learning programs in the schools that they started with.”

Jackson also made no promise to raise the pay of pre-school teachers.

The initial roll-out will focus on schools where “capital costs are minimal,” principals are “ready for that conversion” and existing half-day programs can easily be changed to full-day programs that “keep the same teachers,” Jackson said.

“Teachers have to be trained. A half-day program is very different. … We’re gonna be providing that training for them. At the end of the day, it’s about making sure that quality is there and we’re getting the biggest return on that investment,” Jackson said.

Emanuel said the four-year phase-in is a logistical necessity.

“We’re not ready. … We have to do it the right way. Do it right, rather than just doing it,” he said.

By taking another step to lengthen the school year, Emanuel can now claim that, when the four-year transition is completed, Chicago will have “added 3.5 years of classroom time” since he took office in 2011.

“This is so essential for kids. You cannot make up those lost years if you don’t do it right,” Emanuel said. “It should not be based on means. It should be a right for every child.”