Here’s what advocates want J.B. Pritzker to do for the state’s youngest learners

It’s not clear yet what direction Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, wants to take on K-12 and early education. The billionaire philanthropist, who pledged on the campaign trail to pave a path to universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds and to increase K-12 funding, hasn’t yet appointed a state school superintendent nor filled any vacant state board of education seats.

But top early childhood advocates are trying to get ahead of the curve, circulating draft recommendations on Monday that they plan soon to hand the new governor. In him, they anticipate a receptive audience: After all, Pritzker has been a philanthropic supporter of national early learning causes for decades.

The draft compiled by leaders of the state’s Early Learning Council signals a clear strategy: Before Illinois can embark on universal pre-K, it needs to shore up its early childhood system, which has eroded in recent years with leadership changes, cuts to critical programs, and low participation rates.

Chief among their recommendations: devise a fair funding formula similar to how the state funds K-12 schools — a 2017 overhaul that has helped stabilize school finance — and reverse the dwindling pipeline of available workers by figuring out ways to boost pay and make credentialing less onerous for teachers. Among the suggested fixes are raising state reimbursement rates and expanding dual-enrollment programs for high schoolers.

The group also wants to squeeze $250 million more out of the state for a capital fund — the first infusion in 10 years to build and refurbish child care centers and preschools — and to elevate early childhood leadership to a cabinet-level seat in state government.

“It’s just a start,” said council Co-chair Phyllis Glink, at a meeting Monday of the Early Learning Council. “We know we have to engage a lot more people than come to these meetings and that are in this room.” Glink is also executive director of the Irving Harris Foundation.

Despite his early childhood bonafides, the new governor noticeably did not mention universal pre-K or other early learning programs in his inauguration address in January, focusing instead on triaging the state’s financial situation.

Pritzker’s first budget proposal is expected later this month.

The new governor has named lawyer and former Chicago school board member Jesse Ruiz as a deputy governor for education and appointed five people to the board of directors for the University of Illinois. But Pritzker still has many to-do items on his education agenda.

Ruiz attended Monday’s meeting and spoke briefly about his new boss’ plans, calling him “a demonstrated champion of early childhood.” He said the governor’s office will soon make recommendations for the vacant state board posts.

The governor’s office could also shake up leadership of the state agencies that oversee early childhood issues and the Early Learning Council itself.

Early childhood advocates hope that the new governor will face head-on some of the persistent problems facing young children and families. One example of a program that has frayed is a childcare subsidy offered to low-income working parents. It lost families after Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration made it tougher for them to qualify. And the number of providers declined after the state Department of Human Services rolled out several series of training requirements and threatened to cut off funding if caregivers didn’t comply.

The state has still not been able to entice half of its license-exempt caregivers — known as family, friend, and neighbor care — to complete the trainings.

Another challenge is the rising minimum wage, which has rendered some families ineligible — but just barely — for public child care assistance. Without a means to pay for care, they’ve disappeared from the system.

Despite best efforts to roll out a “preschool for all” program statewide, some 351,000 children under the age 5 are not enrolled in any early childhood program, according to a November report given to the Illinois State Board of Education.