Now more than ever, families everywhere need free preschool

Many families cannot afford it at all. Yet preschool is so important: Children who attend pre-k are more likely to graduate, go to college and earn more as adults.

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Chicago plans to offer full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. Every family deserves the same option, Candace Oropeza writes.

Chicago plans to offer full-day preschool for 4-year-olds. Every family deserves the same option, Candace Oropeza writes.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

It cost around $125 a month to send my son Benjamin to a private pre-k program five years ago. It was by far the least expensive program I could find at the time. I worried that he would not be admitted, which would have meant paying two or three times as much at a pricier preschool. 

Fortunately, after six months on a waitlist, Benjamin did get accepted into the more affordable program. But since then, the cost of pre-kindergarten and child care has skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the number of available preschool slots has fallen, largely because of closures and temporary shutdowns resulting from the COVID pandemic.

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Those rising costs made me nervous as I went about searching for a child care slot again, this time for my younger child, 4-year-old Eleanor.

The public school system in nearby Chicago plans to ensure that all families can access full-day preschool for 4-year-olds, free, by the end of 2022. Many students in the city’s public schools already do. But families like mine in some neighboring communities don’t have guaranteed access to pre-k for our 3-, 4-and 5-year-olds. We engage in a sometimes-frantic search each year for preschool slots for our children, and we very often run the risk of not getting one. 

At present, I know parents who are paying up to $1,800 a month between pre-k and after-school care. I couldn’t imagine having to make that payment on two incomes, let alone on my single paycheck. That’s why I cried tears of joy when I learned that Eleanor was accepted into our school district’s free pre-k program after four months on a waitlist. 

The program is run by her local elementary school and is funded by the Illinois State Board of Education as part of its statewide Preschool for All program. Preschool for All has been so helpful to my family, but its scope is limited: only about 20% of 3- and 4-year-olds have access to free five-day pre-k in Illinois. 

Pre-k has always been important, but never more so than now. Kids who attend pre-kindergarten develop interpersonal skills and are more likely than their peers to graduate from high school, attend college, and earn higher wages as adults. That’s why the recent disruptions to pre-k education have me so worried. Eleanor has spent half of her life in a global pandemic that robbed her of the socialization that is so important in early childhood. I am hopeful that her pre-k classes will help her make up for lost time.

Serving urban, suburban and rural families

Sadly, our school district’s free pre-K has limited availability because of lack of funding, so children in need of additional academic support and families with low incomes are given priority.

I’m glad that those who need it most get the first shot at these slots. But the lack of child care options hurts families across a broad range of groups. Some friends in neighboring school districts do not have access to any free pre-k services and they struggle every month to save up enough to afford preschool. Many families cannot afford it at all; instead of spending on pre-k, mothers have to leave the workforce or rely on grandparents for day care, which is what I would have done if I hadn’t found an affordable program. 

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It doesn’t have to be this way. As part of President Joe Biden’s economic plan, the White House has proposed making pre-k universal and free to all American families, whether urban, suburban, or rural. As Congress decides on the new year’s priorities, lawmakers should pass this plan to give children a more level playing field in early education.

At the end of her first day of preschool last March, Eleanor rushed out of the building and yelled, “That was a blast!” She has learned how to finger-paint, practiced counting animals, and played outside in the autumn leaves with her friends. A few weeks ago, her teacher even taught her the elements of a good story — a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

Now when Eleanor tells me a story, I can tell how much she has already learned from a good pre-kindergarten program. And when she runs out of class every day with a smile on her face, it fills me with pride, and hope that the future of Eleanor’s generation will be bright, despite the pandemic upheavals of their early lives. 

Candace Oropeza lives with her family in Sandwich, which is in DeKalb and Kendall counties.

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