Fluent in the languages of developmental psychology (her Ph.D., from the University of Chicago) and finance (her MBA, from Stanford University), Illinois First Lady Diana Rauner is equipped more than most to navigate the maze that is early childhood education in America. As anyone who has tried to find, or build, a quality program for a child under 5 knows, there are plenty of hurdles to securing good options: availability and affordability; too few full-day seats for families that require them; and low pay and turnover among providers, just to name a few.

In her 11 years in leadership of the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention, Rauner has used her platform to push for higher quality programs for the youngest children in Illinois and nationwide. As the wife of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (who is up for election this fall against another early childhood education advocate, businessman J.B. Pritzker, who has funded some of Ounce of Prevention’s work), she’s as fluent in political speak as she is everything else: “Early childhood is not a partisan issue,” she says.

She spoke to Chalkbeat Chicago’s Cassie Walker Burke amidst big developments for early childhood advocates: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is touting the rollout of an ambitious universal pre-K program in Chicago, and the state is set to release a trove of data on kindergarten readiness later this month. She was joined in parts of the conversation by Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy for Ounce of Prevention.

The interview has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Why is the issue of early childhood education so important to you?

DIANA RAUNER: This is the most important human capital and social justice issue for our nation. We are increasingly a society that requires everyone to have both social-emotional self-regulation skills and the flexibility to continue to learn throughout your life. We know that, as Warren Buffett says, all men are created equal and that lasts for the first 15 seconds. Something we know now that we didn’t know a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, is the importance of the prenatal period to long-term health and health outcomes. And so, actually it’s not even true that all people are born equal.

We really have to ensure that we’re giving all families the kinds of supports they need in order to help their children develop to their highest potential. It’s a moral issue, but it’s also an economic and civic issue as well.

Many people understand the value of early childhood programs, but we are also seeing the percentages of students enrolled in public pre-K in Illinois and Chicago dropping. What is your assessment of why this is happening?

RAUNER: The Early Childhood Block Grant (which is the Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood education program) was cut several years in a row starting in 2010. We lost $80 million over a number of years. The block grant didn’t begin to grow again until 2016, so because of that, enrollment did drop during that time. It has rebounded. We are not sure that the numbers are not back up and over, but the (latest publicly available counts) aren’t current. We just aren’t sure.

IRETA GASNER: The other thing impacting that is that Illinois for decades had one of the nation’s shortest pre-K days: We were serving kids in 2½ -hour programs. Knowing what we’ve learned about at-risk kids, (we need to) serve up a longer day. But there’s some tension there: We can give a lot of kids a little dosage or we can grow the programs back up a little more slowly and give kids who need it the right dosage. So there’s some nuance around the number of kids served now compared to where we were 10 years ago or so.

Funding for early childhood comes from a lot of places; it’s complicated. Some providers lost a state grant recently and complained the application process rewarded good grant writing, not quality programming. How do we build a pipeline of providers and sustain it?

RAUNER: Those are huge questions. Clearly, we know that the Early Childhood Block Grant, while we’ve seen increases, is still not sufficient to serve all the kids who need it. There is a big gap between how we’re funding now and where we need to be to reach all the kids who need it. The recompetition (to reapply for the Preschool for All grants that fund programs throughout the state) that was done this year wasn’t a perfect process. You combine the fact that the process wasn’t perfect with the fact that there’s not enough money to go around, and you end up with an outcome that doesn’t satisfy everyone.

You talked about what it takes to do quality. As a state, for a very long time, we’ve had probably one of the strongest early childhood systems — birth to 5 — of any state. It’s truly a birth to 5 system, it has a birth to 3 set-aside, and it has real attention to birth to 3 funding. It’s also a mixed-delivery system, which means both community-based settings and school settings. It’s meant to meet families where they are and meet families’ different needs. And it sets aside investments for quality infrastructure: that means professional development, data collection, research, innovative programming. That’s been a hallmark of the way that we in the state, and in the city, have prioritized our early childhood system.

Researchers also stress that only quality programs really move the needle with kids from low-income backgrounds. How do we ensure quality?

RAUNER: For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, and that an average teacher is average, and that bad teachers are bad. At Ounce, what we’ve focused a lot on this: Teachers, like other adults, work in organizations. They work in organizations that either support and enhance and develop their performance, or they work in organizations that don’t. Rather than focusing everything on the individual teacher and how good or bad the individual teacher is, we need to look at the organizational supports that help that teacher do great work in the classroom. We focus on leadership in instructional support and instructional excellence, and all of the essential elements of organizational support for great teaching — it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

What’s an example of a program that you’ve visited recently that you’d like to see scaled?

RAUNER:  Our work with universal newborn support. The Illinois Family Connects program is a model that comes out of Durham, North Carolina. It is a nurse home visiting program that serves as a coordinated intake to a web of community supports for new parents and their children. It is a validated and well-trained individual assessment of a new parent and new family and a system of referrals that support families in all kinds of things they need. It’s a universal system, and it’s one that right now we are piloting in two Illinois counties, Peoria and Stephenson. We are hoping to expand in the city of Chicago and other counties across the state.

A year in, what have you learned from the newborn visitation program?

RAUNER: First of all, we’ve learned it’s very, very welcome by families. The uptake rates are high: More than 80 percent of families say, yes, I’d love to have a nurse visit me at home. We’ve also learned that 97 percent of the families that have visits have some kind of need. Many of those needs, more than half, can be addressed right in that visit. Over a third, though, are getting referrals to some kinds of support, including mental health programs, intensive home visiting programs, other kinds of family support programs. A very small percentage, maybe around 1 percent, are getting referred for really urgent issues: medical issues, mental health issues, safety issues in their home. That’s amazingly important and critical to getting addressed quickly.

Do you think Illinois has the ability to scale a program like that? Is there the will on the public side and on the political side?

RAUNER: I think the most important thing we can do is demonstrate both the important outcomes we are seeing, and also, over time, population-level changes that save the state money. In Durham, this program has shown substantial decreases in emergency room visits and child welfare referrals. Those are extremely expensive. And so, if you can really do this kind of program at scale and prevent those kinds of expenditures, you can actually save money and put that money toward prevention and toward serving more families.

"For a long time in education we’ve had this myth that teachers are somehow superhuman, and that a great teacher is great, an average teacher is average, and bad teachers are bad. "Diana Rauner

What else can Chicago learn from other states and cities that are doing early childhood well?

RAUNER: We’ve worked really hard to bring things back here. We brought a program that was developed in Florida called Baby Court to Illinois, which is intensive supports for families with very young children in the child welfare system.We’re always thinking about opportunities to bring innovations here and try new things, and we’re also trying to share some of our innovations with other states.

Pay is really low throughout the early childhood education system. Do you see a realistic path to changing that?

RAUNER: There’s no silver bullet unless we have $100 billion drop from the sky. But there are a lot of things we’ve been doing in Illinois: alternative certification programs, pathway programs, better connections between our high schools and community colleges. There are a lot of things we want to try, but it will take ongoing attention. It’s a little bit like — oh, I shouldn’t make a sports analogy — but you gain a yard at a time. You just keep pushing. It’s not like something is going to transform overnight.

As Chicago has more CPS-backed pre-K seats come online and pays teachers on the CPS scale, community programs are going to have to compete with their wages. Isn’t that going to become an issue here as universal pre-K rolls out?

RAUNER: It is an issue, and part of that is ensuring that the universal pre-K program is still a mixed-delivery system (a mixed-delivery system includes community providers who receive public funding as well as school district-funded programs). We want to make sure the community providers are still part of the preschool system. Clearly pay parity is really important in the long run, and we’re certainly still some way away from that across the board, but it is a really high priority.

It’s important to recognize that a birth-to-3 program is more expensive than a preschool, so that’s one of the reasons why, as universal preschool rolls out, we’ll be focused on it continuing to become a community-based program.

Why is a mixed-delivery system something you advocate?

RAUNER: Very often, community-based programs are actually more reflective and responsive to the communities they serve. Another reality: Many community-based programs blend and braid funding streams, so they can provide full-day coverage for children whose parents are working. The trouble is that programs that operate 6 hours a day cannot serve families who need 10 hours of coverage.

Will the universal pre-K program being rolled out in Chicago have a watershed effect on other places in the state?

RAUNER: I don’t know. We’ll have to see. We have many districts in the state, so they all have very different priorities.

Later this month, the state will release its first kindergarten readiness reports. What can we expect?

RAUNER: It’s a milestone. It’s a tool that serves many different purposes. One is a professional development tool for kindergarten teachers, it helps them see and observe their students and understand (what it takes) to move them along on their developmental path. It’s helpful for parents to understand the range of developmental expectations for kindergarten. And it’s helpful for policy makers to understand how we’re doing relative to our expectations and goals.

I do think that we have to be prepared for some instability in the data in the very beginning — that’s pretty typical. But obviously, well — sometimes the truth is a difficult thing. Here we have always focused on third-grade test scores as evidence of the achievement gap, but we all know the achievement gap opens up much, much earlier. Being able to articulate that and identify that and document it — we hope it will change the conversation so we can talk about it at a much earlier level.

"Sometimes the truth is a difficult thing."Diana Rauner

I imagine that wasn’t an easy sell. How did you convince people?

RAUNER: We had many conversations. We did this as an early childhood and K-12 partnership, we brought together teachers, and school administrators, and early childhood advocates, and researchers. We wanted to make sure this tool was developmentally appropriate, that it was valid and reliable, and that it really served the purpose of professional development as well as accountability. Not accountability for individual students — we wanted to be really sure it wasn’t used in any inappropropriate ways to penalize individual students — but rather, as a way to hold us adults accountable to our very youngest learners.

We’re in the middle of a heated governor’s race, as you know. How does this affect the work you do?

RAUNER: We know from our work in Illinois and at the federal level that early childhood is not a partisan issue. The majority of every partisan persuasion are strongly in favor of investment in early childhood. That makes our work easy. It means we are able to articulate a vision for early childhood education and to promote the best practices to all candidates and all legislators. We have seen strong bipartisan support here in Illinois on the issue for decades.