Illinois families will have access to over 5,800 additional pre-K seats, says Pritzker

Four young students and an adult sit at a table in a classroom. There are toys and a white wall in the background.
Illinois has created over 5,800 new preschool spots for 3- and 4-year-old students in the first year of the state's Smart Start Illinois plan. (Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat)

An additional 5,800 preschool seats for Illinois children received funding under the first year of the state’s Smart Start Illinois initiative, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Thursday.

“For too long, child care has been either unavailable and affordable or both,” Pritzker said at a press conference on Thursday.

Pritzker, who has long promised to make universal preschool a reality around the state, noted that the state’s reimbursement system was unpredictable and made it difficult for child care providers to retain staff and offer seats to parents.

Smart Start Illinois, which launched in 2023, added $250 million to the state’s early childhood education programs. The initiative is focused on expanding access to preschool for low-income families and families living in “preschool deserts,” regions of the state where there are not enough pre-K seats for at least 80% of low-income families with young children, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.

The initiative included funding for the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood block grant and for the state department of human services’ child care assistance program, home visiting program, and early intervention services that support young children with disabilities.

The plan’s initial goal was to create a total of 20,000 preschool seats for 3- to 4-years-olds within four years. The state planned to create 5,000 preschool seats for young children within the first year of Smart Start. The state surpassed the first-year goal by 18%, Pritzker said on Thursday.

The state board provided new funding to 95 programs statewide to create 5,886 new preschool seats. Once these programs are up and running, over 82,000 preschool seats will be available.

In the state’s 2024 budget, the state board of education received $75 million for its Early Childhood Block Grant as part of the Smart Start Initiative — the overall budget for the grant went from $598.1 million in 2023 to $673.1 million. With the additional funding, the state board plans to provide and administer seats for 5,383 additional children in half-day preschool programs and 503 additional seats for full-day preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

At Thursday’s press conference, State Superintendent Tony Sanders noted that preschool is important because it is where children and families form their first relationships with schools.

“We’re going to keep working until we transform every preschool desert into places where our youngest learners have a chance to thrive,” said Sanders.

Under Smart Start Illinois, the state board allocated $8.4 million to existing child care programs. According to a press release from the state, the state board encouraged programs to consider using funding to boost salaries for early childhood educators.

Many child care workers at centers have the same education levels as preschool teachers in public schools, but often make significantly less money. Many have reported having to work multiple jobs to make ends meet or being forced to leave the field altogether. More funding could decrease the pay disparity, especially for women of color who dominate the workforce.

The coronavirus pandemic slowed down Pritzker’s efforts to expand preschool. After he was reelected in 2022, he vowed to make good on his promise by increasing funding and increasing pay for workers.

Smart Start also included two new initiatives to help support child care providers. The Childcare Workforce Compensation Contract was aimed at increasing the salaries of child care workers and bringing more educators into the field and the Childhood Construction Grant Programs was created to help improve current child care facilities.

In the spring legislative session, Illinois lawmakers will decide how much to approve for the second year of the governor’s plan. Pritzker is expected to give his State of the State address and budget proposal later in February.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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