‘Something has gone wrong’: Providers sound alarm over Chicago’s $200 million award for early learning

After months of speculation about how Chicago would redistribute nearly $200 million it spends on educating low-income children under age 5, the city has released the list of winners and losers. 

But in redistributing its early learning funds, the city will impose dramatic cuts that will threaten the reach of several high-quality programs run by established non-profits. Some community organizations may cut back classrooms, close sites, and lay off staff. Meanwhile, newer for-profit centers have picked up slots and funding. 

Advocates and center directors are raising questions about the grant process and about how the city determined winners and losers. They also worry that by scaling back its promise to fund more seats for the youngest children, the city could deprive hundreds of children and some neighborhoods of quality child care options. 

The long-awaited grant awards represent a key part of the city’s effort to expand early learning. 

Another part has been opening pre-kindergarten classes for all 4-year-olds — essentially adding whole new grade level to public schools. 

Last spring it announced a two-tier system: At the end of a four-year rollout, schools likely would educate the bulk of the city’s 4-year-olds, and community-run programs would expand to care for more substantial numbers of younger children. The city pledged to send millions more to help community-run preschool and early childhood programs offset the financial loss of that shift, since younger children cost more to educate.

“They kept telling us that we should focus on building our infrastructure and workforce and buildings to mostly serve children aged zero to 3. So reluctantly we all had to think about that, and what was going to be our future,” said Maricela Garcia, the CEO of the nonprofit Gads Hill, which operates two centers in Chicago and is opening a third. It applied to serve more kids in that age group, she said, but instead the city cut back its grants to Gads Hill centers for the youngest children.

“In general, we now have a $700,000 hole in this year’s budget that we have to work around,” said Mario Perez, the executive director of El Hogar Del Nino, a center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood that serves 410 children through site-based care, home visits, and group homes. His organization’s child care center, which opened two new infant classrooms this week and is running a waitlist of families for those spots, also lost funding for programs for infants and toddlers.

“The idea of more preschool for more kids is noble, and it’s the right thing, but somewhere between the concept and the rollout, something has gone wrong,” he said.  

The city has hired a transition agency to help centers that have to close classrooms find alternative arrangements for families. The new contracts start Dec. 1.  

In all, 150 agencies applied to run 250 programs, the administrator in charge of the grant said. Her department is sticking with its 101 winners, while acknowledging that the process was imperfect. 

“We are right now very aware that lots of folks are unhappy,” said Lisa Morrison Butler, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, one of two agencies stewarding Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout (the other is Chicago Public Schools). 

In short, she said, that’s because the city didn’t get as much money as it had anticipated from the state,  and as a result it could not fully fund many proposals. 

“Everyone asked for significant increases,” Butler said. “We would have needed $48 million more than we had to give everyone 100% of what they wanted. And we didn’t have that. And so in almost every case, we pulled back a little bit from the ultimate proposal.”

Butler said many applicants submitted ambitious plans, as the city had encouraged them to do. And she stressed that a wider disbursement of seats among more agencies — including some for-profit businesses led by a diverse group of operators — offers parents more choice.

“We think choice is a good thing. But at the same time, we recognize that we need to try to help transition folks and we know that that is going to be challenging,” she added. 

Using a scoring system it has yet to make public, the city divided the money — a mix of federal, state, and local dollars intended for low-income families — among the 101 winning agencies.

Chicago Public Schools manages its preschool programs out of its own $7.7 billion budget, but because of the way early education money is distributed, some federal dollars are granted to the school district and then reallocated to the city’s family support services department, which oversees preschool programs and child care centers that operate outside of schools. Asked if the money intended for Chicago’s community programs didn’t get rerouted from Chicago Public Schools, Butler emphatically said no.

“We’ve heard that folks wonder whether or not CPS held back (money) and they did not,” she said.

Of the roughly 21,300 slot allocations, 37% went for children 3 and under. 

Broken down by neighborhood, the most center-based preschool slots were granted to providers in Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Austin, and Greater Grand Crossing, according to a Chalkbeat preliminary analysis. All four neighborhoods are also getting new preschool classrooms in public schools this year, according to a list released in the spring.

Fewest seats went to the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, as intended, since the median household income there would render most families ineligible for publicly funded programs in community centers.

Advocates said they would like the city to be more transparent about how it determined which sites would receive funding and why some cuts were made to high-quality organizations that are among the state’s highest rated.

“We are all working on assumptions,” said Jose Marco-Paredes of the Latino Policy Forum, which convened a working group on early childhood issues after the city announced last year that it would offer pre-kindergarten to all 4-year-olds in the city. “We don’t know where the slots did go, how the decisions were made, or how quality played a role in them.”

Garcia, of Gads Hill, said she was surprised to learn her organization lost slots intended for older children in a new facility it is building in Brighton Park — an area of the city that has seen growth in Latino residents and new immigrants.

She was disappointed to learn of cuts, too, in a program that funds a weekly home visit by a teacher and a social worker to 290 at-risk families with young children. The visits help build parenting skills and connect families with doctors, schools, and other programs. This year, about 50 fewer families will receive visits as a result.

“You cannot just decide to cut those slots for those families when that is the only program they feel they can be safe and have kids still learning,” Garcia said.

Like Garcia, Perez of El Hogar also saw cuts in his home visiting program. 

One Englewood center, Little Angels, hosted one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s early press conferences trumpeting his universal pre-K initiative. The founder, Nashone Greer-Adams, had been told the city would pick up the tab for a new $3.4 million child care center and community hub.

Illustrating the complicated way that funding for programs and buildings gets distributed, the Chicago Board of Education signed off on the building contract — then, several weeks later, the city cut back Greer-Adams’ early learning grant. 

As of Thursday, a petition she started on the website Change.org titled “Save our school!” had garnered 160 signatures.