Chicago aldermen demand more details about $200 million early learning ‘imbroglio’

Calling the city’s recent award of subsidies for preschool and child care an “imbroglio” and a “disaster,” two Chicago aldermen are demanding hearings into how the city chose the winners and losers of a $200 million grant.

“If this disaster is not immediately ameliorated, the entire early childhood ecosystem will be destabilized and dismantled throughout this city,” the aldermen wrote in a resolution introduced at a City Council meeting Wednesday. 

The resolution says 100 classrooms serving children under 5 could be closed and more than 300 staffers could lose their jobs because of the way the city redirected grant money that goes toward educating children from low-income families. 

The call by Roderick Sawyer and Maria Hadden is unlikely to reverse the awards. The city previously said there is no appeals process.

The council members are asking for a public hearing with Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler, who reportedly has been meeting privately with small groups of aldermen to hear concerns. Sawyer represents a portion of Englewood on the city’s South Side, and Hadden represents Rogers Park on the city’s Far North Side.

After Wednesday’s council meeting, when asked if she was concerned that some operators could be forced to close their doors, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said “that’s not going to happen.”

 “We have been actively engaged with people who got money, people who got less and the people who received nothing. We are working to try and make sure that every child has a spot, period. We will do what it takes to make sure that happens.”

 Lightfoot said the main issue was that her administration demanded that the workers be paid fairly. In the grant application, the city spelled out salary minimums for workers — many of whom are underpaid — and gave providers five years to reach the goals.

 “These workers who are so critically important to the nurturing of our children, they deserve fair pay,” Lightfoot said. “Most people understood that and agreed that they were going to provide additional resources to compensate these workers. Some didn’t. And the ones that flat out said, ‘We’re not doing it,’ they are some of the people that didn’t get funded. Nevertheless, the conversation continues. My staff has devoted a significant amount of time to make sure that we get this right.”

The long-awaited grant awards represent a key part of the city’s effort to expand early learning. In all, 150 agencies applied to run 250 programs, Butler said. An analysis of results showed that several established non-profits that the state has rated as high quality lost seats, while newer, unrated for-profit centers picked up seats and funding. 

Butler told Chalkbeat earlier this month that the city didn’t receive as much state funding as it had anticipated, and that her agency sought to spread seats among more agencies to offer parents more choice.

Some providers who lost seats have complained that the city had refused to reveal how it scored the proposals. They also complained that the city encouraged them to shift focus to infants and toddlers but did not award them those slots as promised. 

Of the roughly 21,300 slots, 37% went for children 3 and under. The remainder went to seats for 4- and 5-year-olds — a demographic that the city previously said it wanted to primarily shift to public schools. 

The aldermen want to know how the city scored the applications and weighed program quality. They also are asking about the qualifications of local graduate students who reportedly scored the applications and about any technical difficulties that might have disadvantaged applicants. 

The changes are supposed to take effect Dec. 1. Several providers have told Chalkbeat they may have to close classrooms or cut staff.

The resolution warns of the impact to neighborhoods such as Englewood, Austin, and Back of the Yards, where providers saw cuts. The areas are “already some of the most vulnerable, highest-need communities in this city,” the resolution reads.

“The initial loss seems to hit low-income black and brown communities really hard,” said Hadden, one of several council members who have openly questioned the process since the grant awardees were notified in August. 

Heather Cherone of the Daily Line contributed reporting to this story.