State Finds $20M More For Preschool; Dozens Of Programs Still Lose Out | WBEZ
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State Finds $20M More For Preschool; Dozens Of Programs Still Lose Out

Updated July 16

Illinois has found a way to keep open some preschool programs that were on the chopping block.

The state distributes preschool money through a competitive grant. In the most recent competition, the first since 2012, dozens of districts with longstanding programs lost out — leaving parents and schools scrambling. School districts’ personnel, who learned of decisions in early June, were shocked because the cuts came as state funding for preschool actually increased by $50 million.

The Illinois State Board of Education said it is now “collaborating with the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development and the Department of Human Services” to move $20 million to fund additional preschool programs.

“Ever since we first announced the grant, we’ve been hearing from local communities,” said state board spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. “We’ve received a number of appeals, so since that moment we’ve been working toward finding a solution.”

But dozens of programs will remain zeroed out.

In Waukegan, for instance, the district did not get a high enough score to be funded, so no amount of additional money will help. Waukegan serves 750 preschoolers and had a state pre-K grant for more than 25 years. That district’s school board voted last month to use money meant for its older students to keep serving preschoolers.

Other districts have shut down their preschools.

A total of 82 programs — 66 of them run out of school districts — did not get funding because they scored too low. School officials from across the state have criticized the competitive preschool grant as rewarding grant writing rather than quality preschool.   

“It’s more than a little unfortunate that ISBE chooses winners and losers when it comes to early childhood education based on superficial criteria on an application form,” Donald McKinney, superintendent of Hoover-Schrum District 157 in Calumet City, wrote in a June email to the state. “This is a moral failure.”  

The superintendent of downstate Palestine Community Unit School District 3, Chris Long, wrote to the state as well. “If we did not cross a ‘t’ or dot an ‘i’ don’t punish the children,” he wrote.

Matthews said the whole purpose of the competitive grant is to fund high-quality programs.

“It doesn’t just continue to fund the same programs, but also makes [the grant] available to anyone who wants access to these funds,” Matthews said.

Public, private, for-profit, and nonprofit entities can all apply. Matthews said the process for determining which programs are funded is standardized; she said grant-writing help was available to districts.

Some of the biggest winners in the state preschool grant process were nonprofits, including Children’s Home & Aid, Family Focus, and Easterseals of Metropolitan Chicago, which won $6.2 million without having a prior state pre-K grant.

Also among the winners was the Ounce of Prevention and an affiliated group, Educare of West DuPage County. Diana Rauner, who is married to Gov. Bruce Rauner, is Ounce of Prevention’s president.

Chicago Public Schools is the only school district that doesn’t have to compete for preschool money; the district gets a flat 37 percent of the state’s Early Childhood Block Grant.

Advocates have long said preschool is dramatically underfunded in the state. Only about a quarter of Illinois four-year-olds are enrolled in a state-funded preschool. That’s a lower percentage than in 21 other states.

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @lindalutton.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Ounce of Prevention operated Educare of West DuPage. Educare of West DuPage County is affiliated with the Ounce of Prevention, not operated by it.

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