The city of Chicago this week is rolling out the next phase of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s long- promised effort to offer universal preschool for all 4-year-olds.
This year, the city’s second, it’s focusing on high-need neighborhoods. The goal is to reach all Chicago communities by 2022.
“This commitment ensures that regardless of your zip code, regardless of your family background, if you live in the city of Chicago, your 4-year-old will get a full day of education,” Emanuel said last May, just before he left office.
But the free program through Chicago Public Schools could come at a major cost to community-based early childhood centers, many of which offer far more than preschool for four-year-olds, including infant and toddler care as well as after school and summer programming.
The preschool expansion, coupled with new requirements for centers that receive public funding, is hurting centers across the city, including Concordia Place in the Avondale neighborhood on the North Side.
“We are closing classrooms,” said Brenda Swartz, president at Concordia Place. “We will have classrooms that will be dark.”
Concordia, which is known for its early childhood programs for 0- to 5 year-olds, had a steady number of students in its seven preschool classrooms for three to five-year-olds. That changed this year.
It’s a loss for parents like Elizabeth Martinez, who live in the neighborhood and say they love the convenience of Concordia. It’s open 11 hours a day and the space is big and stocked with books.
“I love the environment — how clean the school is, and how much activities that have been going on for the kids,” Martinez said.
Like other centers, some parents at Concordia Place receive public subsidies to help cover the cost. For other families, the copay is based on a sliding scale up to $375 weekly for preschool. Charging any tuition, though, makes it hard to compete with free preschool at CPS.
Swartz blames enrollment declines this year on Chicago Public Schools. The preschool expansion there is not income based, “so actually anyone can go there, the same way that anyone can come to Concordia place. So we are competing for all of the families,” she said.
Service providers, including Swartz, say the city is rushing its rollout and undermining existing preschool centers.
And some of them offer more services than CPS, especially for kids from birth through age three. As scientists learn more about brain development — that learning begins at birth — experts say these are essential services. Some centers also have adult training programs.
Early childhood education advocates say they warned Emanuel of the negative consequences of this expansion. But he defended it and pushed for it until the very end.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed concerns about the expansion during the mayoral campaign, but last month highlighted new capital investments for the rollout.
“We will build 100 new full-day preschool classrooms in the neighborhoods of greatest need, ultimately allowing CPS to serve up to 2,000 more 4-year-olds,” Lightfoot said.
New requirements add to provider woes
Community-based providers aren’t just concerned about the new competition from CPS’ preschool expansion.
This year they also are renewing contracts for public funding for several early childhood programs, including Head Start, Early Head Start, and Preschool for All. They haven’t done that since 2012.
And this time around, the requirements are much more stringent — and costly.
Based on national standards for early childhood education, the student-to-teacher ratio was lowered, teacher salaries have to be higher and preschool teachers should have master’s degrees, according to Lisa Morrison Butler, commissioner for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services.
But complying with all of that requires a solid financial footing — something community organizations say they don’t have right now.
Morrison Butler said the city is offering more money to help meet those requirements. And Lightfoot said she wants to keep working with community-based organizations.
“[If] we give them mandates, we have to also provide them with some support,” Lightfoot said last month. “They need to be able to meet those additional financial requirements so it’s not just an unfunded mandate that can’t be met.”
But community organizations insist they won’t be getting enough money to support their programs under the new contract, especially if they keep losing enrollment.
In a recent letter to the mayor, a coalition of community organizations say the funding isn’t enough and at least 30 community centers in neighborhoods like Englewood and Austin are struggling financially and in danger of closing.
This, combined with the free preschool rollout at CPS, has meant an especially rocky start to school for early childhood centers across Chicago this year.
In an earlier version of this story, a city official misstated the qualifications required to teach in publicly-funded preschools. A bachelor’s degree is required.