Pritzker pitches $433 million early-childhood education plan in East St. Louis
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
When Jordyn Rubin led her pre-K students during a counting drill Thursday in East St. Louis, they had an audience that included Gov. J.B. Pritzker.
Pritzker said seeing the excited 3- and 4-year-olds show off their skills at the Vivian D. Adams Early Childhood Center was a “great experience” as he promoted his proposal to give every Illinois toddler free preschool classes and to increase early childhood education and assistance spending by more than $433 million.
“Just to see their eyes lit up, to see what they’re learning, to hear the engagement with one another and with their teacher, honestly it does the heart good,” he said in a news conference after the classroom visit.
Smart Start Illinois is the name of the early childhood education program that was announced Wednesday as part of the $49.6 billion budget proposed by Pritzker. Along with the stop in East St. Louis, Pritzker also went to Springfield and Mount Vernon on Thursday to promote the Smart Start plan.
The Smart Start program would get $250 million in funding in the upcoming fiscal year under this proposal.
Pritzker also called for lawmakers to provide Smart Start Illinois with $100 million in new spending from the Rebuild Illinois program to double the help given to child care providers to build new and expand existing facilities.
This spending would help end “child care deserts,” Pritzker said.
“Smart Start Pre-K is a four-year plan that will allow us to give access to preschool to every 3- and 4-year-old in Illinois,” Pritzker told lawmakers during his speech on Wednesday. “In the first year alone, 5,000 more seats will be available for children across the state.”
Pritzker wants to increase that number to 20,000 by the end of the four-year program.
There are 89,000 students currently enrolled in the existing Preschool For All program, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. At the Vivian D. Adams school at 501 Katherine Dunham Place, there are over 440 preschoolers in the East St. Louis School District 189 building. The district has 60 other preschoolers at Katie Harper Wright Elementary School.
Other parts of Pritzker’s proposal include a $70 million increase in funding for the Child Care Assistance Program for lower-income families; $12 million for scholarships and apprenticeships to expand the child care workforce; and $1.6 million to launch a partnership with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, an initiative to send free books to children under age 5, according to a Capitol News Illinois report on Thursday.
The Early Childhood Block Grant is the name of the current program to support preschoolers.
Jackie Matthews, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the current state budget has $598 million earmarked for the Early Childhood Block Grant program.
Matthews said in a statement that a wide range of entities are eligible to apply for Early Childhood Block Grant funds, including school districts and both non-profit and for-profit community-based organizations.
Capital News Illinois reported Thursday that while early childhood programs have popular support, Republican lawmakers have raised concerns that new programs could lead to tax increases.
But Pritzker, a Democrat, said the state’s finances have improved and the state has used surpluses to pay the state’s debts and pension obligations, according to the CNI report.
In the news conference in East St. Louis, Pritzker was asked why he didn’t include tax cuts as part of his proposed budget.
“I would like to lower everyone’s taxes, that’s No. 1,” Pritzker said.
But he said there have been “deficits” in education and infrastructure spending “that we need to work on simultaneously.”
“We’ve not raised taxes,” said Pritzker, who won re-election to a second term in November.
Early childhood education
Pritzker said there are four sections of his proposed early childhood education program: Pre-K accessibility, childcare, early intervention and home visiting.
Here are highlights of early childhood education programs as proposed by Pritzker on Wednesday:
▪ The state would increase funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant program this year by $75 million as part of the effort to reach 5,000 more children.
▪ The Early Childhood ACE Scholarship program would be supported at community colleges and universities to increase the number of early childhood educators.
▪ Smart Start Workforce Compensation Contracts would provide funding for “high-quality programming and competitive wages for caregivers,” Pritzker said.
▪ Smart Start Childcare would permanently give unemployed persons child care assistance while they look for a job for three months. This program began in 2021.
▪ Smart Start Illinois would add $100 million in new spending from the Rebuild Illinois program to helping providers build new and expand existing facilities.
▪ The Smart Start Early Intervention funding would be increased by $40 million to support the program that gives aid to infants and toddlers birth to age 4 with developmental delays, autism, or other diagnosed medical conditions.
▪ Smart Start’s Home Visiting program would be expanded so more visits could be made to homes an effort to improve maternal and child health, prevent child abuse, prevent domestic violence and prepare toddlers for school.
“Smart Start Illinois will save taxpayers $7 for every one dollar invested and will vault Illinois to national leadership in early childhood development,” Pritzker told lawmakers Wednesday.
“Enhancing quality early care and education is a win-win solution for re-mobilizing parents in the workforce, enhancing brain development and kindergarten readiness, saving taxpayers money, and increasing economic activity now and in the decades ahead.”
Mike Koziatek is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.