Should Illinois rewrite the way it funds early learning? The case starts to build.

Chicago’s Catholic Charities is shuttering three longtime early childhood centers at the end of this month, leaving 450 Southwest Side children and their families searching for care. Nearly 100 staffers soon will be out of jobs. 

The closures in neighborhoods rich with immigrants and their families are another disruption to the city’s fragile network of early education centers. And they spotlight how difficult it can be for organizations — even experienced ones — to cobble together enough funding to sustain full-day care for young children from various private and government pipelines.

A spokeswoman from Catholic Charities said the organization typically made up for funding shortfalls with private dollars — but this year, a structural deficit meant it couldn’t make ends meet, prompting a difficult decision. 

“This is so very hard on our families,” said Brigid Murphy, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, who said the centers relied on federal Head Start funding, state preschool funding, and a state program that supplements the cost of child care for low-income working families. 

But the three streams didn’t cover all of the complex costs of caring for children, a familiar scenario in both the for-profit and non-profit world of early education. How Illinois can fortify its system, which is recognized nationally for its high quality but only reimburses centers between $24 and $32 a day to care for preschoolers, is one of the questions facing the administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker. 

Pritzker, a longtime early education philanthropist before running for office, has said he would like to roll out a statewide universal pre-K system during his first term. Creating a new funding formula for early childhood education would be an important first step — and one that has the support of a growing number of policy makers.

To that end, the governor is expected to name a finance commission to study the issue by the end of the year. The group will comprise about 20 people, likely to include early education experts as well as legislators, Deputy Governor Jesse Ruiz told the executive committee of the state’s Early Learning Council last month. The commission would be tasked with making recommendations for action by the state legislature.

And it would have a loose blueprint to follow, policy makers say: a successful effort two years ago that led to an overhaul of Illinois’ system for funding K-12 schools. Even though many school districts, including Chicago, remain underfunded, the formula helped galvanize a movement to bridge the revenue gap between property tax-rich districts, such as on Chicago’s North Shore, and tax-starved districts. 

Early educators have started laying the groundwork for a similar push. Their case is bolstered by a new report from Advance Illinois, which found that the state has backslid in the past decade in providing early education and higher education. Only one in four children under 4 is in any sort of publicly subsidized early childhood program, the Advance report showed.

“The theme from the report is that even when we’re seeing progress, that progress is not happening evenly. We are leaving behind too many kids who are low income or of color, and we’re seeing those gaps show up very early,” said Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, which helped build a bipartisan case to revamp the K-12 funding formula in 2017. 

“If we could solve the K-12 funding problem, we could solve anything,” Steans said. “Getting the funding and programming right in early childhood is a critical hurdle.”

Currently only one in four Illinois children shows up to kindergarten prepared, according to results of a state kindergarten readiness assessment. One reason: While the state has invested in quality programs, they reach too few children. A September analysis by the group Illinois Action for Children illustrated vast inequities in how preschool seats are distributed. Some communities have no seats for children from low-income families, while others have an overabundance. In a third of the communities studied, a child from a low-income household had less than a 50-50 chance of attending a publicly funded preschool. 

A trove of research supports the value of increasing access to preschool programs. Findings released earlier this year from a seminal study showed that benefits from high-quality preschool extended not just to the students themselves, but correspond to higher earnings and stronger long-term achievement among their offspring — making a case that early childhood investments can pay multi-generational dividends. 

But how to pay for quality programs, and expand them, is a question weighing on many states and municipalities, according to Harriet Dichter, a former secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, who co-authored a new report on early childhood funding for the Build Initiative, a public-private partnership that guides states in policy creation, and several other groups. 

She cites examples such as a sugary beverage tax in Philadelphia and a corporate activity tax in Oregon. In each place that successfully tapped into new tax-based revenue streams for early education, researchers observed that the “early learning agenda was sufficiently prioritized” and included a dedicated effort to make the case to voters.

Early education funding is complicated. In Illinois, money comes from the federal government and multiple state departments and funds a range of programs, obscuring a full picture. 

Rough estimates put spending on early childhood care and education at around $1.5 billion statewide. Of that, Illinois spends $1.1 billion through a combination of the state education department, which funds preschool, and its human services department, which oversees a child care program that funds infant and toddler care for low-income working parents. The federal government spends $360 million on Head Start programs across the state. 

Illinois is home to nearly 934,000 children under age 5, according to U.S. Census estimates. 

In contrast, the state spends about five times that — some $7.2 billion — to educate the 2 million children in its public elementary and high schools.

The state funding conversation is starting to unfold as advocates in Chicago scrutinize the results of an August grant redistribution that has caused seismic shifts in the city’s own early learning system. Catholic Charities said the three Southwest Side closures were not impacted by the city’s grant reallocations. But many longtime Chicago providers with state quality ratings said they lost funding and are consolidating classrooms as a result, while newer for-profit providers that are licensed but do not have quality ratings picked up seats.