Bill creating new state Department of Early Childhood clears key Illinois House committee

Four young students and an adult sit at a table in a classroom. There are toys and a white wall in the background.
Students eat lunch at Haugan Elementary School on Thursday, August 4, 2022 Chicago. A proposal that would create the state's new Department of Early Childhood passed a House committee on Friday, March 22, 2024. | Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat (Christian K. Lee for Chalkbeat)

Sign up for Chalkbeat Chicago’s free daily newsletter to keep up with the latest education news.

A bill creating a new state Department of Early Childhood cleared a key Illinois House committee Friday morning by a 14-0 vote – advancing Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s goal of streamlining early childhood and child care programs.

The bill now heads to the House floor.

If House Bill 5451 clears the general assembly this session, the state’s Department of Early Childhood would start operations on July 1 and would oversee programs such as early intervention for young children with disabilities, home visiting, and child care assistance programs to help low-income families access child care.

While the department is in a transition phase, the Illinois State Board of Education, state Department of Human Services, and the Department of Children and Families Services would continue to run child care programs and early childhood education programs.

The Department of Early Childhood would be the lead state agency to administer and provide early childhood education and child care programs and services to children and families by July 1, 2026.

In opening remarks to the House’s Child Care Accessibility & Early Childhood Education Committee on Friday, State Rep. Mary Beth Canty, a Democrat representing Arlington Heights, said placing childhood services under one department would be easier on families with young children and child care providers.

“This bill will make early childhood simpler, better, and fairer,” said Canty. “It will make it easier for families to access services, it will allow the state to more equitably serve high-need families, and will also reduce the administrative burden on providers.”

HB 5451 does not change any child care programs during the transition, according to Canty. Any changes to child care or early childhood education programs would have to come before the general assembly either next year or during 2026.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, Senate Majority leader and a Democrat representing Chicago’s west side and nearby suburbs, proposed a Senate version of HB 5451, known as Senate Bill 1, which is already on the Senate’s floor.

During Friday’s committee meeting, other House representatives raised concerns about the costs of operating the Department of Early Childhood and whether state employees who work under the three state departments that currently operate early childhood education programs will be able to maintain their jobs.

Ann Whalen, Early Childhood Transition director, testified during the hearing that the original cost analysis estimated $13 million to launch the department, but the future budget would be determined later.

When asked if current state employees would be able to retain their jobs during the creation of the new department, Whalen said personnel may be pulled from one department to the other. “No one will lose their jobs. Period,” she said at the committee hearing.

Earlier in the hearing, Canty noted that AFSCME Local 31 and the Illinois Federation of Teachers represent early childhood education and child care workers across the state. Both unions currently have ongoing negotiations with the state about the development of the new department.

Canty said current workers are protected under state law and would be “unaffected” by her proposal.

Pritzker also plans to boost funding for early childhood education in the state’s 2025 budget during the second year of his Smart Start Illinois Initiative — which has the goal of creating 20,000 new preschool seats for 3- and 4-year olds. Last year, he added $250 million to the plan. According to the governor’s office and the state board, the plan has already created an additional 5,800 preschool seats.

In February, Pritzker proposed a $150 million increase for early childhood education. The increase includes $75 million for the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood education block grant to add 5,000 more public school seats for preschool students. Pritzker also recommended an additional $5 million for home visiting programs and $36.5 million for the child care assistance programs for the state Department of Human Services.

The state legislature is expected to approve a final budget for fiscal year 2025 at the end of session in late May.

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.

The Latest

Changes to the dress code, the district’s priorities for student discipline, grade configurations, and transportation will all start in the 2024-25 school year.

Seeking culturally relevant lessons or hoping to better serve student needs, many educators make changes to curriculum. Experts worry about drifting too far from standards.

The public school district rehired Mary Bennett and Raymond Lindgren to consult on career and technical education programs and to support ongoing school construction projects.

A report from the testing group NWEA also estimates that Hispanic students in particular need more academic support during their recovery from the pandemic.

State officials acknowledged that some students still have commutes over an hour, but said they believe the district has made ‘sufficient progress.’

The vice president has championed more funding for high-poverty schools, Head Start, and school desegregation efforts. Those positions will likely face political headwinds if she wins.