AS A CANDIDATE IN 2002, GOV. ROD Blagojevich of Illinois promised voters that his administration would boost investments in early childhood programs. He ratcheted up funding by $30 million each year for his first three years in office, helping reach 25,000 more of the state's neediest children. But in 2006, he came out with his biggest promise yet: quality, universal preschool for all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds.
"Nothing is more important to parents than their children, and nothing is more important to a child's future than getting a good education," said Blagojevich in a press statement at the time his proposal was released. "And that's where preschool comes in."
Blagojevich's promise did not come out of the blue. It was built on more than 20 years of grassroots advocacy and coalition-building in Illinois, a state that has long been at the forefront of early childhood programs. As elsewhere, the movement for high-quality preschool has had to over-come the challenges of fiscal scarcity, partisanship, and competing priorities. But a broad coalition of advocates, legislators, doctors, economists, law enforcement officers, business leaders, educators, and parents, united behind a strong executive, has been able to make it possible.
Illinois was already ahead of the pack on early childhood when Blagojevich took office in 2003. The state had been investing public funds in early childhood programs since the 1980s and, in 1997, created the Early Childhood Block Grant under Republican Gov. Jim Edgar. That fund has now grown to well over $300 million. But Blagojevich's Preschool for All would be a landmark effort, a move to both reach more children and put more emphasis on quality than any state had previously attempted.
To make good on his promise, Blagojevich created the Early Learning Council, a group of advocates, policy-makers, researchers, and educators charged with forging a plan to make high-quality preschool available to all the state's children. After three years of study and dialogue, the council unveiled a plan to put an additional $45 million into the block grant annually for three years, and continue expanding funding until it could reach every child who needed it. If the legislature supported the plan and maintained funding, Preschool for All would be a reality in five years. And it would dovetail with the governor's All Kids plan to provide health care to all the state's children, putting early childhood programming at the top of the legislative agenda.
The Early Learning Council's model took a unique approach to distributing the funding, helping it reach the state's children through a variety of programs. Child-care centers, public schools, private nursery school programs, and Head Start centers could all apply, and grants would be distributed on a competitive basis.
The council created a three-tier system for determining need. The first tier consists of students who are "at risk," by virtue of either family income level, English language-learner status, or special needs. The second tier includes children from families living at below 400 percent of the federal poverty level, and the third tier consists of everyone else. In the first years the grants would go to facilities with at least 51 percent of the students coming from tier one, and by accepting state funding, education would become free for all students enrolled in the facility's preschool program. As the budget for Preschool for All grows, the programs it encompasses would expand to tiers two and three, helping accommodate middle-class families who lack access to quality programs. Importantly, 11 percent of the money would go toward expanding and enhancing programs for children from birth through age 3. Other funds would be reserved for increasing the quality of those preschools through teacher certification programs, mental-and emotional-health training, salary increases for staff, and system-wide program evaluation. …