Dozens of school districts around the state are scrambling to keep preschool programs intact — or to lay off staff — after learning their preschool funding was reduced or zeroed out.
Illinois lawmakers approved $50 million in additional money for preschool this year, so it was a shock to many of the programs to learn their funding was slashed.
“The cuts seem extremely devastating,” said Marcus Alexander, director of teaching and learning at Waukegan public schools, which saw its $3.5 million annual state grant cut to zero. For the past 26 years, Waukegan had received early childhood block grant funds to fund a half-day preschool. Last year, the district served 750 preschoolers who are 3 and 4 years old.
Based on the state’s new K-12 school funding formula, Waukegan is one of the neediest districts in the state. But preschool funding is not channeled through that formula. Instead, preschool block grant funds are given out through a competitive grant application open this year for the first time since 2012. Waukegan scored 42 points out of 100, far below the 60 needed to be funded.
Alexander and other critics say the grant application rewards those who write grants well “versus what our true need was, and the success of our program over the years.”
Competitive grant ‘contrary to equity’
In western Illinois, near Monmouth, Regional Superintendent of Education Jodi Scott said she’s preparing to lay off 35 staff members. Her office, which serves a four-county area, received an extra half million dollars in March to expand an infant and toddler program there — now it’s cut completely.
“We’ve done all the [parent] recruiting. We’re working with YMCA, we’re working with our housing department,” she said, “We’ve just done a ton of things in the community that, all of a sudden, we’re going to have to stop doing.”
Scott, a former preschool teacher herself who’s considered a state leader in early childhood education, said existing programs should get some priority. “If you’re building and growing — and the state is continuing to fund that and support that — the assumption is that that wouldn’t get ripped right out from under you,” Scott said.
Scott’s regional office will continue receiving preschool money for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.
Local districts like West Chicago and Oak Lawn imagined they’d be expanding thanks to the extra state money for preschool this year. It never occurred to them they could see cuts.
“It is very shocking to us, very surprising,” said Oak Lawn-Hometown District 123 Superintendent Paul Enderle, who also saw his program completely cut. His district has a growing low-income and bilingual student population.
He said if a district with increasingly needy students “that has been following the state protocols and guidelines to a ‘T’ and has a gold-standard program can’t get funding, that to me doesn’t make much sense.”
Fifty-four districts have appealed the state’s decision to cut their preschool funding, including Oak Lawn and Waukegan.
“The idea of [the state’s new funding model] is to be more equal and make sure that kids and school systems across the state have equity and adequacy in state funding,” said Enderle. “And I feel like this [competitive grant] concept is contrary to that. As part of our written appeal, we even commented on that.”
Chicago is the only district that doesn’t have to go through the grant application. The city gets a flat 37 percent of all state pre-K money.
Investing in preschool
Theresa Hawley, senior vice-president of policy and innovation at Illinois Action for Children, a policy and advocacy group, said part of the reason districts were shut out is because public investment in preschool is about $1.3 billion, but need in the state is around $4 billion.
“We are very underfunded in the early childhood space. So when you go through a process to split the pie up again — there’s just not enough pie to go around,” Hawley said. Her group competed in the grant application — which is open to nonprofits as well as school districts — and was awarded $2.4 million for infant and toddler programs and $3.5 million to provide preschool programs for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.
Hawley said there is good news in the grant results. Some high-quality new programs are being funded. The state is finally hitting a goal of channeling 20 percent of preschool money to infant and toddler programs.
The Illinois State Board of Education is also focusing on the positive: “We were able to fund 5,000 more spots for children than we were able to last year,” said state board spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.
Matthews said grant writing help is available to districts through the federal government. And she noted some districts that scored high still didn’t get funded, because there wasn’t enough money. Matthews said lawmakers can always make a supplemental appropriation to preschool.
Taking ‘from Peter to pay Paul’
Meanwhile, Waukegan’s school board voted last week to fund preschool on its own, without state pre-K money. They’ll use funds meant for their kindergarten through 12th-graders.
Terry Link, state senator from the Waukegan area, said that undermines the purpose of the state’s new K-12 school funding formula, which did send more money to Waukegan this year.
“If we take $3 million from Peter to pay Paul, we’re not gaining anything,” Link said.
“School districts in need — that’s where the money should be going. That’s why the formula worked out for the K through 12 … It should be looked at in preschool also, and if we need to do a formula change, then it’s on our shoulders to do it.”
If nothing changes, Waukegan and other districts who lost preschool funding will have to wait five years to apply again for the money.