The state board of education is putting Illinois’ new governor to the test with a $2.4 billion-plus request to help fund a universal preschool system for 3- and 4-year-olds — a proposal that, if granted, would quintuple the state’s current spending on early education.
Universal preschool is something that billionaire businessman and early childhood philanthropist J.B. Pritzker pledged to do on the campaign trail. But in his inauguration day speech earlier this week, Pritzker made few concrete promises on education, focusing instead on overhauling the budget and fixing the state’s tax code.
The state school board’s budget recommendation dwarfs current-year preschool spending of $493 million, which Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state legislature fully funded. Those dollars go toward a menu of publicly funded early childhood programs, including free preschool for low-income families. They also fund a slate of other programs, such as after-school care and home visiting for new babies in some high-poverty counties.
The state board’s Chief Financial Officer Robert Wolfe said the “big ask” for early education funding for the 2019-20 school year seeks to serve the estimated 350,000 3- and 4-year olds left out of current state-funded preschool programs. It is a part of a larger $19.3 billion recommendation for public schools to meet the state’s goal of providing a quality education for every child in the state.
Jonathan Doster, Illinois policy manager for the early learning advocacy Ounce of Prevention, said late Wednesday that the group appreciated the state board’s willingness “to start a conversation” about what it fully costs to fund a robust early childhood system. But, he added, “the proposal approved today focuses almost exclusively on the expansion of universal preschool, leaving out a critical component — funding for infants and toddlers.”
“In order to foster the healthy development of young children, especially those facing greater challenges, we must start well before children turn 3 or 4,” he added.
Early education is just a sliver of the state’s current $8 billion budget. The board spends the most on funding individual districts, and the 2019-20 request includes $660 million more to do so according to the state’s evidence-based funding formula. Currently, the vast majority of Illinois’ school districts are not adequately funded according to the formula.
State leaders are also asking for more money for career and technical education courses for rural districts, free lunch programs, and teacher recruitment assistance to address the state’s dire teacher shortage. The request also includes additional dollars for a charter loan fund.
Each year the board makes a request that significantly exceeds the actual budget passed by the legislature. A final proposal will be submitted to the governor’s office in February.
In coming months, the politics of the state board, and the nature of its budget requests, could change, as Pritzker will have the chance to replace several members of the state school board whose terms are expiring.