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Emanuel expands universal preschool plan as mayoral clock winds down

Mayor Rahm Emanuel plays with a toddler at a Truman College pre-kindergarten program in May 2018. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

An additional 2,800 kids will have access to free preschool in 28 neighborhoods next school year in the second phase of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s universal pre-kindergarten initiative — though the fate of his prized early childhood education program remains unclear with the clock ticking down on his City Hall reign.

The outgoing mayor is set to announce Friday along with Gov. J.B. Pritzker that more than 100 new full-day classrooms will be provided for 4-year-olds in “high needs” communities, from Austin and Uptown to the East Side and Englewood.

Emanuel rolled out the ambitious program for the start of the current school year, with 180 full-day classrooms serving about 3,700 kids from households with annual incomes no greater than $46,325.

With the expansion, the city estimates about 15,000 of the city’s 4-year-olds will be served next school year.

The first year of the program cost about $20 million, and the second phase will put $50 million more out for formal requests from community-based providers.

Emanuel has said the program would top out at an annual cost of $175 million by the time universal access was provided for an estimated 24,000 kids citywide in 2021 — but that was before he announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.

The expansion announcement comes in the waning days of Emanuel’s tenure as he seeks to burnish his legacy on the Chicago Public Schools system. He also made stops this week touting a new elementary school in Belmont Cragin, and $32 million in funding to 32 schools for International Baccalaureate, STEM and fine arts programs.

“We must remain committed to expanding early education programming to ensure every student, regardless of their family’s resources, gets the great start they deserve,” Emanuel said in a statement. “This expansion helps us to further close the achievement gap and build stronger communities across Chicago for generations to come.”

Mayoral runoff opponents Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot both support aiming for universal preschool but have criticized Emanuel’s handling of the initiative.

During a live debate Wednesday night on ABC-7, the candidates were asked about parents’ options and the “economic impact” Emanuel’s program is having on not-for-profit providers across the city.

Lightfoot responded by saying that, “of course” 4-year-olds should be in pre-K programs, “But, so should 3-year-olds.”

“One of the things I have concerns about — and that I’ve heard from people in community-based care — is that the program was rolled out without any kind of consultation with them. That is particularly distressing to folks who spent a lot of time training and recruiting bilingual teachers,” she said.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what this is going to mean for those kinds of community-based care.”

Preckwinkle agreed that Emanuel’s mistake was that, “This roll-out came without consultation with community-based organizations and community activists.”

“For many of the community organizations, they use the subsidies they got for 4-year-olds to cover the costs of their 3-year-olds,” Preckwinkle said. “We don’t want to destroy the community-based organization network that’s been created over time that serves so many of our neighborhoods.”

Ireta Gasner, vice president for Illinois policy at the early childhood advocacy group the Ounce of Prevention Fund, praised the added resources but said questions remain over evaluating providers and making sure parents have “meaningful choice.

“It’s a really dramatic rejiggering of the system that’s going to require adjustments along the way,” Gasner said.

Parents can find providers through the city at www.chicagoearlylearning.org.

Contributing: Fran Spielman