Brown: State child care cuts cripple preschool programs

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This is the time of year when the five-year-old preschool students at North Lawndale YMCA advance into kindergarten, opening up slots for a new group of itty-bitties to take their place.

Over the next month, some 19 North Lawndale YMCA preschoolers will move on to that next level of education, nearly all of them better prepared to succeed academically than if they had not spent their early years in this nurturing environment.

But as it stands right now, there will not be 19 new children enrolling to take their place this fall as in the past. Instead, one classroom will be left empty.

That’s because Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration has frozen admissions to the state’s Child Care Assistance Program and enacted new eligibility guidelines that will put the program out of reach for 90 percent of families who previously would have qualified.

Yes, I’ve been writing a lot about this topic. It’s important. Screwing up this program could have a negative ripple effect for months and years to come.

OPINION

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The situation at the North Lawndale YMCA is being replicated at preschool and day care programs across Illinois where poor families are being told they will no longer have access to the low-cost, quality child care programs on which they rely to hold a job or get an education.

At North Lawndale, which cares for up to 250 children ages six weeks to 12 years, we’re talking something like 75 percent single moms.

“These are all working families. They’re not just sitting at home,” emphasized DaWana Williamson, senior vice president of youth development for YMCA of Metro Chicago.

Under the old guidelines, Williamson said, a parent with one child could make up to $2,000 a month and still qualify for the subsidy. Under the new guidelines, that drops to $630 a month.

These are people holding jobs at the very low end of the economic spectrum. When you take away their child care, they have to make tough decisions about whether it makes more sense to keep working or stay home with their kid and collect Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, today’s version of welfare.

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I’d say it makes more sense for us as a society to help them stay in the workforce or get a college degree so they can move ahead with their lives, especially when it also means giving these kids their best chance at succeeding in school.

What I’m not sure even many of the policymakers appreciate is the symbiotic relationship between the federally funded Head Start preschool programs, which pay for a half day of schooling, and the Child Care Assistance Program, which allows the same people providing preschool to take care of the kids the rest of the day.

By blowing a hole on the childcare side, Rauner is effectively making it impossible to operate the entire program.

“We can’t run the program without that other funding,” Williamson said.

If the governor’s people believe the subsidy is being abused or if they have some philosophical objection, it would be better if they stood up and said so instead of pretending this is solely about the state budget.

On Wednesday, the Illinois Senate passed a bill designed to reverse Rauner’s rule changes, although I’m not quite sure what effect it will have.

I spent the morning at the North Lawndale YMCA, where many of the kids were excitedly waiting to go on a field trip to a Mariano’s grocery store.

The facility is part of the Homan Square Community Center, an oasis in this West Side neighborhood.

The YMCA is the largest non-profit provider of Head Start programs in the city, and North Lawndale is its biggest individual program.

In addition to the 19 open slots created by children starting kindergarten, another 30 or so openings created by typical year-to-year attrition will also potentially go unfilled this year because of the new rules, said North Lawndale YMCA site director Thelma Jackson-Thompson.

That’s a lot of kids who could have used the help.

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