Illinois is doing better by its youngest learners — but it’s reaching too few of them

After losing ground for many years in early education compared with other states, Illinois has started to play catch-up by boosting funding for young learners and building new tools to assess whether children are learning, according to a report released Wednesday by a prominent research group.

But the state still lags behind most of its neighbors — and the national average — in the percentage of children it enrolls in preschool programs: Even with last year’s funding boost under then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois still only reached 27 percent of its 4-year-olds, compared with 33 percent nationally, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, which authored the report.

Related: Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker plows $100 million more into early ed, but no universal pre-K this year

In comparison, Wisconsin and Iowa each enrolled more than half of their 4-year-olds. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Indiana, which has been slow to sign up children and has left federal money on the table intended to get a program off the ground.

The inconsistency of approaches among neighboring states isn’t a quirk of the Midwest. Nationally, progress in expanding early learning has largely stalled, despite research that consistently shows economic benefits and bipartisan support among voters. Ten states enroll more than half of their eligible children and are considered leaders in the field; six have no program to speak of.  

The report highlighted Illinois’ strengths, such as smaller class sizes for young learners, a robust system of health screenings in preschools, and workforce rules that have been tied to quality, such as requiring lead teachers in preschools to hold bachelor’s degrees. It also singled out the debut of a new assessment, the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, or KIDS, that last year provided district-level data for the first time on how few children show up to kindergarten prepared.

But the report also stressed some threats to Illinois’ turnabout. Amid a national teacher shortage among early education providers — a problem that has hit Illinois hard — the researchers found that Illinois lacked some critical teacher support systems, such as paid professional development time, mentoring, and loan forgiveness for preschool teachers. Unlike some other states, Illinois did not report solid data on salary comparisons between private providers and school-based programs — advocates have flagged significant pay gaps as an issue statewide and in Chicago. 

One of the co-authors, Steven Barnett, who is the founder and co-director of NIEER, said Illinois’ strategy diverges from that of some other states. Instead of concentrating its funding on opening more spots for 4-year-olds, the state has diverted some of its dollars to reach even younger children who live in poverty.   

“That’s a reasonable choice,” said Barnett, who has tracked states’ progress on the issue for years. “But at the same time, you have to recognize that, unless you get a much higher level of service, you aren’t really going to saturate the low-income kids.”