Emanuel Promises Free Preschool As Race For Mayor Heats Up

A Chicago Public Schools preschool classroom in 2017.
A Chicago Public Schools preschool classroom in 2017. Susie An/WBEZ
A Chicago Public Schools preschool classroom in 2017.
A Chicago Public Schools preschool classroom in 2017. Susie An/WBEZ

Emanuel Promises Free Preschool As Race For Mayor Heats Up

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Facing nine challengers in his re-election bid in 2019, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making a bold election-year promise free preschool for every 4-year-old in the city.

It’s a campaign pledge Emanuel hopes to achieve by 2021, but one that could be sidelined without a clear funding stream. This comes after the mayor has spent two terms trying to change how Chicago educates its youngest children. His latest plan closely mirrors the policy implemented by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio shortly after he took office in 2014.

“Regardless of background, income, race, or geography in the city of Chicago, if you have a 4-year-old, they’ll have full day pre-K in the city of Chicago,” Emanuel told WBEZ on Tuesday ahead of a Wednesday public announcement.

The rollout of his universal preschool plan will factor into the 2019 election race, during which Emanuel’s record on education is sure to be fiercely debated.

Preschool in Chicago is free for the poorest families, while other families pay on a sliding scale based on their income. There are also 10 Chicago Public Schools that offer paid preschool. Tuition for the 2018-19 school year is $13,974.

But because space is limited and admission is mostly based on need, many middle-income families are shut out entirely.

“If you have means, your kids are covered, and if you’re really poor, your kids are covered,” Emanuel said. “If you’re a working family, you’re out in the cold. And it’s not right. And that’s what we’re fixing.”

The mayor’s office said that the sliding scale system would be phased out as free, full-day preschool classrooms are rolled out over the next few years.

But many of the details are still being hammered out including what the new entitlement will cost.

In 2014, Emanuel got private investors to loan the city money to expand early childhood programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. The investors recently got a $500,000 payout from the Pay for Success program.

Emanuel hopes to pay for the expansion this fall with any additional money Chicago might get from the state’s new school funding formula. But that money is not guaranteed and it’s unclear how much it might be, as Illinois lawmakers are still hashing out a budget for next year. And even if CPS gets extra money this year, it’s not clear what the total price tag will be for the city to reach all 4-year-olds.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at an event on Sept. 22, 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson said the district hopes to serve an additional 3,000 and 5,000 students each year until all 4-year-olds in the city are offered a spot in public preschool. Currently, there are about 15,000 4-year-olds in CPS and by 2021, the goal is 24,000. In Illinois, children are required to start school at age 6, so while preschool would be available to all, it is not required.

According to census data and projections from the city, there are approximately 36,000 4-year-olds living in the city. The mayor’s office is projecting 68 percent of them will enroll, which is about the same percentage of 5-year-olds in the city who choose to enroll in kindergarten.

Jackson said most of the new 4-year-old preschool classrooms will be in CPS schools that previously offered half-day programs. According to the mayor’s office, the district will have 185 new full-day preschool classrooms starting this fall, but of those, only about 20 will be brand new.

Eliminating half-day preschool programs came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting. Elizabeth Herring, a member of the Bret Harte Elementary Local School Council, said their school had two half-day classrooms with 20 students each for a total of 40 students. It will now have just one full-day classroom with 20 students.

“I’m asking you to restore the number of 40 slots by giving us an additional full day classroom,” Herring told board members. “It will allow us to serve all of the students who need pre-K most and it will also allow a few spots for families in our neighborhood to come and try out our school.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said as the city rolls out full-day preschool for 4-year-olds, they will continue to offer half-day programs and preschool for 3-year-olds across the city.

Near the end of his first term, Emanuel tried to streamline public preschool programs, but the process is still cumbersome for some families. Last fall, WBEZ found several spots were left unfilled.

Families aren’t necessarily guaranteed a spot in their neighborhood school, and instead rank programs of interest. Under the current system, children may attend preschool in one place and then move to a different elementary school for kindergarten. Jackson said it’s a process they’re reviewing so that families don’t have their young children move from school to school.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.