Juice boxes, strollers, and the South Side Cowboy: Why Chicago preschool parents protested at City Hall

Jessica Thompson brought her daughter Jazlyn, who is 1, to a protest Tuesday where parents called on City Hall to restore funding to some early learning centers. (Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat)

Some parents hauled red and blue wagons filled with sandwiches and juice boxes, while others pushed strollers and carried bejeweled signs and drooling babies. The cry of the preschool-parent protesters who wrapped around Chicago’s City Hall Tuesday was: “Restore the cuts now!” 

Parents and child care providers from centers across the city, who numbered in the low hundreds, called upon Mayor Lori Lightfoot to restore funding that was cut to about two dozen centers last year when Chicago changed the way it funds early learning. Some called for the removal of Lisa Morrison Butler, the city’s commissioner of family support services, with chants of “Hey, ho, she’s got to go!”

Joined by the South Side Cowboy, a local horseback rider whose videos have gone viral, they also demanded more transparency about who gets funded, who doesn’t, and why.

Asucena Gaona protested Tuesday with her three children, ages 10, 3, and 1. Her children attend Kiddie Kare, a center in Brighton Park, which will lose funding. 

She said she is worried about finding an alternative she trusts that is near her house. “I was planning on sending them back (next week),” she said. “Without them, how do I find education for my kids?” 

Shae Harris, a teacher and parent at Eyes on the Future in Rogers Park, wore her toddler strapped to her back as she walked and chanted. “It’s not easy to pull your kids out of one place and stick them somewhere else,” she said, referring to the city’s offer to help parents find other child care. “My center is walking distance from my house and we are happy there.”

She said that in this moment, after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, and protests citywide, it was frustrating to hear city leaders talking about violence but not education. 

“Who’s going to help our children if we don’t? They can’t talk,” she said.

The South Side Cowboy, a horseback riders whose videos have gone viral, joined preschool parents as they protested outside Chicago’s City Hall. (Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat)

The parents are worried about the impact of centers losing funding, which could mean staff layoffs, classroom closures, and enrollment cuts. 

Last year, Chicago steered more state and federal money to early learning overall, but some long-time agencies and small businesses took cuts, while others received more money. Ultimately, the mayor extended some short-term grants, but that stop-gap funding is set to expire June 30. 

The city has not provided many details or score sheets to explain why some long-time centers lost funding. One organization had just received a city grant for a new building. 

At least one provider, Tamera Fair, the owner of West Austin Development Center on the city’s West Side, has called the process unfair. She helped organize the rally Tuesday and has filed a lawsuit alleging flaws in the grant process. 

Her lawyer said a judge will hear arguments this week for why the case should or should not be expedited. 

Chicago’s situation is increasingly unusual among large cities. The city acts as a super grantee that has the authority to steer the bulk of state and federal funding — about $1 billion across five years — for early education. It revamped its grant process last year in the wake of a push to expand preschool in public schools. Providers have been upset ever since. 

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