Pritzker’s budget to provide preschool for 5,000 children ‘to cover all of those early childhood deserts’

The Illinois governor will deliver his fifth budget and State of the State address Wednesday in the Illinois State Capitol. During a video briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Pritzker said the early education program would see a boost due to the state’s “improved fiscal standing” and “prudent fiscal management.”

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker answers reporters’ questions during a news conference at Chicago State University in April.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker answers reporters’ questions during a news conference at Chicago State University in April.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

SPRINGFIELD — Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s budget proposal for next year will include a $250 million investment in early education, including a $75 million block grant that will create 5,000 preschool spots for Illinois children.

But lawmakers will likely be listening to some other key details in his plan, including how the state will continue to fund its unfunded pension liabilities — and how it can prepare for a potential recession.

The Illinois governor will deliver his fifth budget and State of the State address on Wednesday afternoon in the Illinois State Capitol. During a video briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Pritzker said the early education program would see a boost due to the state’s “improved fiscal standing” and “prudent fiscal management.”

The governor’s goal for the program, dubbed Smart Start Illinois, is to ultimately add an additional 20,000 preschool seats within four years. The program is aimed at accessibility for low-income families, but school availability will also play a role in what areas will see seats.

“The program that we’re working on is making sure that there is availability. We are also, to a large degree, paying for many of these kids to go to preschool, the three-year-olds and four-year-olds, but we’re not covering, you know, people who are wealthy,” Pritzker said.

But no matter who pays for the actual preschool, spots must be available for the children.

“It’s the capacity building, as well as the making sure that we’re actually paying for each of the kids that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

Chicago already offers free preschool for four-year-olds in 64 of the city’s 77 community areas, but a WBEZ analysis last year showed Chicago Public Schools has struggled to fill all the classrooms it has invested in, in low-income areas with the greatest academic and social needs. The pandemic made it worse. With less than a week before classes began last fall, 4,200 seats for 4-year-olds were unfilled.

But Pritzker emphasized some areas of the state have waiting lists for preschool.

“There’s some places where it’s impossible for a parent to get child care or preschool, either because all the spots are filled within a reasonable distance, or because there just isn’t a provider,” Pritzker said. “That’s the case in many downstate communities, and so we’re trying to cover all of those early childhood deserts.”

Pritzker hinted at his preschool funding plans during his inaugural address in January, vowing that he’d work to make preschool available to every family throughout the state and provide more economic security for families by eliminating child care deserts and expanding child care options.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves to the crowd after delivering his inaugural address during ceremonies in Springfield in January.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker waves to the crowd after delivering his inaugural address during ceremonies in Springfield in January.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP file

He also said his budget this year would include a plan to make college more affordable, bringing down the cost of higher education and vowing to focus on “making tuition free for every working-class family”

Pritzker’s budget proposal will include the $75 million early childhood block grant at the Illinois State Board of Education to fund preschool and $130 million to begin funding Childcare Workforce Compensation Contracts to give child care workers a raise. It also provides a $40 million increase for early intervention programs and $5 million to expand the Illinois Department of Human Services’ home visiting program to reach families in need of support, according to details released by the governor’s office.

The budget proposal will also include $100 million to improve early childhood provider buildings, $70 million to cover the Childcare Assistance Program and $25 million for the Department of Human Services to revamp its payment system for providers.

A day before the budget address, lawmakers were voicing their own priorities.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, urged Pritzker to include funding to help prevent fatal drug overdoses on the South and West sides of Chicago.

Some downstate Republican legislators, including state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, on Tuesday cited concerns over the rising cost of energy and encouraged the governor to address energy rate hikes in his proposal.

Other Republicans want a “financially sound” budget that includes structural reforms.

Illinois Senate Republican Leader John Curran is interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times in November.

Illinois Senate Republican Leader John Curran is interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times in November.

Provided

“We are hoping to see a budget that includes more opportunities for working families, public safety funding, and structural reforms to ensure Illinois is on the right fiscal path,” Illinois Senate Republican Leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

“If the Governor and Majority are genuine in their calls for bipartisanship, and willing to approach this budgeting process in a financially-sound manner, then we are more than ready to work together to promote security and economic growth.”

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