Emanuel fleshes out pre-election plan for expanded preschool

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday fleshed out his ambitious pre-election plan to “close the gap” that has denied preschool enrollment to 1,500 four-year-olds from low-income Chicago families.

Emanuel said the 2015 city budget that will serve as his re-election platform will make a $9.4 million capital investment at 10 schools, nearly all of them on the city’s South and West sides “where there is the greatest need.”

The 1,500 impacted four-year-olds qualify for federal free or reduced lunch programs, but do not attend pre-kindergarten programs for at least half a day.

The mayor said he also plans to earmark a $4.5 million state capital grant for enhanced community-based programs and use an innovative, $17 million “Social Impact Bond” program to give 2,620 kids over the next four years access to high-quality early childhood education.

The bond program is in the form of a loan from the Goldman Sachs Social Impact Fund and Northern Trust as senior lenders. Subordinate lenders are the J.B. and M.K. Pritizer Family Foundation. The lenders will only be repaid if students realize “positive academic results.” Benchmarks include: increasing kindergarten readiness, improving third-grade literacy and reducing the need for special education services.

The social impact bond program will utilize a half-day Child-Parent Center model that works with students and their parents to improve student performance.

“Every child in Chicago should have access to pre-K, regardless of neighborhood or family income,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a news release.

Calling the budget he will unveil next week a “reflection of our values,” Emanuel said, “In Chicago, high-quality pre-K and kindergarten is not the exception. It is the expectation. This will provide all of our students with the foundational learning necessary to take them on to college, career and a successful future.”

Since taking office on May 16, 2011, Emanuel claims to have steadily expanded the city’s annual investment in early learning programs — to  $36 million.

That includes: universal kindergarten; expanded pre-school for three- and four-year-olds; additional programs for 5,000 infants, toddlers and their families and raising the quality of early childhood programs.

“Early childhood education helps create a strong foundation that benefits students throughout their entire education,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett was quoted as saying.

“By investing in our children’s futures early on, we can eliminate the need and cost of additional educational supports while ensuring students are ready to learn in kindergarten when they come through our doors.”

The plan to provide free pre-school for 1,500 four-year-olds from low-income families was tipped in July by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed.

That didn’t stop the City Council’s Progressive Caucus from joining forces with working parents and community groups last month to demand “high-quality, universal early care and education programs” for all children from birth until age 5.

While Emanuel talks a good game about expanding early childhood education, advocates argued then that scores of working parents can’t find quality care for their children.

At a City Hall news conference, parents and teachers told horror stories about long waiting lists, rigid eligibility rules and sky-high fees.

A coalition that includes SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Action Now and the Chicago Teachers Union want the city to pay for the expansion by enacting what it calls “progressive revenue measures.”

They include a financial transaction tax on La Salle Street exchanges championed by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who is considering running for mayor and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who has already entered the race.

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