Commission calls for overhauling early childhood education funding in Illinois

By Peter Hancock 
Capitol News Illinois

Rep. Will Davis, of Homewood, chairs a virtual meeting of a House appropriations committee discussing early childhood education funding. (

SPRINGFIELD – A commission that Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed in 2019 will soon issue a report calling for a complete overhaul in the way the state handles its budget for early childhood education along with a massive increase in funding for early childhood programs.

Speaking Monday, March 15 at a hearing for a House appropriations committee that deals with elementary and secondary education, Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz said the state’s system of funding early childhood development programs is fragmented across too many agencies, that services are unevenly and inequitably distributed around the state and that early childhood educators are paid far too little for many to make a living.

“All of this contributes to Illinois’ low kindergarten readiness numbers, which are especially low for children of color,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz served as a cochair of the Governor’s Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, which Pritzker established in December 2019. The commission’s charge was to develop an innovative approach to making early childhood education and childcare services affordable for all families with children, from birth through age 5.

Theresa Hawley, an assistant to Ruiz who also helped staff the commission, said its upcoming report on the matter will ask that funds for early childhood programs be determined using a model similar to the evidence-based system for K-12 education and for all funding to be centralized into one state agency.

That report is due later this month.

The funding model that the commission developed considers the cost of providing high-quality services for all children in the state.

It includes the cost of hiring teachers and staff at competitive wages, appropriate staffing levels, food and food services, staff training and professional development and various administrative expenses.

The commission then estimated per-child costs for services along different age ranges and regions of the state. For example, preschool care was estimated to cost between $15,500 and $18,000 annually per child in areas outside the city of Chicago, while within Chicago, those services would cost between $16,000 and $20,700.

“The funding goal that’s in the report is about seven times as much as we’re spending across all of our public funding streams on early childhood right now,” Hawley said. “It’s upwards of $11 billion that has been identified as the need that we would have in order to provide a system that adequately pays staff and provides adequate services to all the children across the state that that need them.”

Hawley didn’t say specifically how long it might take the state to reach that level of funding, but she did say that much of the funding could come from the federal government.

“We’re in a really interesting moment right now where the federal government has really stepped up to the plate and invested more in early childhood and in child care than we’ve ever seen before,” she said. “In a normal year, we might have around $6 billion of federal spending on early childhood and child care specifically. This year in the American Rescue Plan that just passed had $39 billion for child care nationally. And the (federal budget) package that passed in December also had another $10 billion. So we’re in a moment of unprecedented federal attention to this, which we’re really excited about.”

In the current fiscal year, the state has budgeted $543.7 million for early childhood block grants, which is distributed to both public and private entities that provide educational, health, social and child development services to children in the state.

Pritzker’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year which begins July 1 calls for no increase in that amount, but the Illinois State Board of Education is seeking a $50 million increase.

ISBE has said it needs the money to expand access to early childhood programs to about 9,400 additional children. But several advocates who spoke to the committee said they believe the money should be used to increase pay and benefits for child care workers and preschool workers.

Jill Andrews, president of the Southern Illinois Early Childhood Action Team, said her organization currently pays its parent coordinator a stipend of $178 a week and its grant administrator $153 a week.

“Nowhere in the state would anyone be encouraged to apply for these positions at this level of funding,” she said. “Soon the minimum wage will catch up with the salaries we’re able to offer and more preschool-for-all programs will be shuttered due to the inability to attract teaching staff that meet the preschool-for-all educational requirements.”

Other people who operate community-based preschools and day care facilities said they often lose employees who gain experience at their facilities and then go work for school districts that offer higher pay along with health and retirement benefits.

But Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, who chairs the committee, said ISBE was specifically asking for additional funding to fill more slots in early childhood programs, not to increase salaries and benefits for workers, and he suggested community-based providers discuss the matter further with ISBE.

“Not to say that both buckets aren’t important buckets, if you will,” he said. “But again, if we’re talking about supporting the State Board’s ask, well, according to our information the State Board’s ask is to increase slots. They haven’t said anything in particular about personnel and increasing support for personnel.”