The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

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