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Illinois becomes the first state in nation to give all 3- and 4-year-olds the opportunity to attend preschool

[JULY 26, 2006]  ROLLING MEADOWS -- Joining families, childhood development experts, early childhood education advocates and elected officials at John G. Conyers Learning Academy on Tuesday, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich signed a law that makes Illinois the first state to make preschool available for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Senate Bill 1497, creating the Preschool for All program, was sponsored by Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, and Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester. The budget for the fiscal year that began on July 1 includes an additional $45 million for Preschool for All, giving 10,000 more 3- and 4-year-olds a chance to attend preschool.

"Study after study and basic common sense tell us that giving kids the chance to start reading early and learning early is the single most important step we can take towards helping them become successful students," Blagojevich said. "That's why it's so critical that every child in Illinois have the opportunity to attend preschool, and it's why we're making Illinois the first state in the nation to make preschool available for every 3-year-old and every 4-year-old."

Senate Bill 1497 amends the Illinois School Code to authorize the use of state funds for pre-kindergarten services for children who are not defined as at-risk. Under current law, pre-kindergarten funds are used exclusively to serve at-risk kids. At-risk kids have the greatest need of service, and numerous studies show that they benefit significantly from attending preschool.

However, there are many kids who do not meet the current definition of "at-risk" who could still benefit from preschool. For example, parents who make $50,000 a year may not earn enough money to provide their child with high-quality preschool, but if the child doesn't have any other risk factors, under prior law they would not qualify for state-funded pre-kindergarten. In Illinois, the average annual cost of private early learning programs for 3- and 4-year-olds is $5,200, and the cost for two children can exceed $10,400 annually. The new Preschool for All program will continue to prioritize at-risk children, but expands to also serve middle-income families. Studies have shown that middle-income children often don't have access to preschool, but that access to preschool can make a real difference for them in their school readiness.

Preschool for All will allow every community to offer high-quality preschool in a variety of settings, including public and private schools, child care centers and licensed family child care homes, private preschools, park districts, faith-based organizations, and other community-based agencies. The program requires that preschools be staffed by experienced teachers who hold bachelor's degrees and specialized training in early education, and the preschools must provide at least 2.5 hours per day of high-quality programming designed to foster all of the skills -- social, emotional, physical and cognitive -- that all young children need to achieve success in school and later in life.

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a leading expert in child development, joined the governor for the bill signing. Brazelton, who holds degrees from Princeton and Columbia, has written 40 books on child development and developed the Emmy-award winning television show "What Every Baby Knows." As a parent advocate, he has appeared before congressional committees in support of parental and medical leave bills and worked to improve child care support for all working parents. In 2002, he received the World of Children Award for his achievements in child advocacy. Currently, he serves as professor of psychiatry and human development at Brown University and clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Harvard Medical School.

"I think Illinois and Governor Blagojevich are setting the bar high for the rest of the country by instituting this program of early learning opportunity," Brazelton said. "Backing up your children at a time when they are so ready and excited to learn is critical. We know from our own work that it is not just learning, it is giving children a chance to be evaluated for health and have models to live up to besides their own families. Entire families will profit from this program."

"Making early education available to the children of Illinois is critical to their success, both in school and out of school," said Currie, House sponsor of the legislation. "Twenty years ago, I sponsored the legislation that made preschool available to at-risk children, and I'm thrilled that today we are expanding those services to all Illinois children."

"I am honored to work alongside Governor Blagojevich on such a significant education initiative," said Lightford, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate. "I understand the urgency in reaching all 3- and 4-year-olds as early as possible, especially children 'at risk.' Therefore, the basic principles in helping children succeed are generally taught in preschool programs. It has been proven that the earlier we can reach our youngsters and get them engaged in school and learning good habits, the more success they will have in their future academics."

The fiscal 2007 budget includes $45 million to give 10,000 more children the chance to attend preschool. The governor's education plan calls for an increase to $60 million in funding next year and for continued increases in funding until all who want preschool have access to it by fiscal 2011.

Countless studies demonstrate the benefits of early learning in preschool. Children who begin reading at age 3 or 4 do better throughout their academic careers. Children who received high-quality early education are 20 percent more likely to complete high school and 41 percent less likely to be placed in special education. In addition, children who received high-quality early education are 42 percent less likely to be arrested as a juvenile for a violent offense and will have half as many criminal arrests, as well as have higher earnings and property wealth as an adult.

"We know that when kids have access to high-quality early childhood programs, they have improved lifelong learning," said Jesse H. Ruiz, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. "Governor Blagojevich and the General Assembly have worked hard to make sure that our youngest children have this important first step in their education. Children, families, communities and our entire state will benefit from this investment now and well into the future."

"Preschool for All reflects the science that demonstrates success in education is dependent on what happens during children's earliest years," said Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children. "Governor Blagojevich and lawmakers from both parties agree on the critical goal of offering voluntary, high-quality preschool for all young children, and we thank them for their leadership."

At the academy where the Preschool for All legislation was signed, one of the programs is the Early Childhood Developmental Enrichment Center. "ECDEC is one of the initial pre-kindergarten at-risk programs serving children in districts 15, 21, 23, 25, 26, 54 and 57, and we are honored to be part of this landmark legislative event in early childhood education," said Kathy Villano, project director for the Early Childhood Block Grant. "The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that preschool programs with developmentally appropriate, solid research-based practices based on Illinois' Early Learning Standards have a significant and positive educational impact, not only in preparing children to enter kindergarten ready to learn, but also in empowering parents to become active in their children's early school experiences. ECDEC staff and families are proud and excited that our legislators have made Governor's Blagojevich's Preschool for All a reality and hope to expand our programs in Schaumburg, Palatine and Wheeling townships."

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"This bill is the continuation of a legacy that our governor has begun -- a legacy which at its core ensures the health and academic future of our children, a legacy which began with a $90 million dollar commitment for the ECBG," said Maria Whelan, president of Illinois Action for Children. "We are thrilled to partner with him on behalf of children and all the possibilities that this legislation leads to."

"Preschool for All is about opportunity -- helping parents give their children opportunities to succeed in school and in life," said Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund and co-chair of the Illinois Early Learning Council. "For children with the greatest needs, we will begin before preschool, starting in the first days of life."

"This program will allow the children that we service additional teaching staff and support services that will prove to advance their educational careers," said Kimberly Bianchini, president and independent operator of Advance Preschool Inc.

"As the summer winds down, I'd rather see kids back in school than in the back of my squad car," says Orland Park Police Chief Tim McCarthy, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Illinois. "Kids who attend quality preschool are more likely to complete high school and less likely to commit crimes. Law enforcement leaders know this, and researchers from our most esteemed academic institutions agree. I applaud the governor and Illinois' legislators for voting for preschool, and for a safer Illinois."

Investments in early childhood education also pay enormous economic dividends in the long term. Based on certain economic returns like increased earning potential, decreased dependency on social services and on the justice system, it is estimated that society receives $7.14 for every $1 spent on early child care programs. That means the $90 million Blagojevich has invested over the last two years would yield at least $643 million in savings over the lifetime of those children. A newer study released in November 2004 found an even higher rate of return -- showing a savings of more than $17 for every $1 invested.

Despite unprecedented budget deficits inherited from the Ryan administration, Blagojevich has made early childhood education a top priority, fulfilling his promise to increase investments in the Early Childhood Block Grant by $90 million over three years, and then increasing it by another $45 million this year. Thanks to that commitment, this spring the national group Pre-K Now called Blagojevich "the nation's premier pre-K champion." In addition, the National Institute for Early Education Research has consistently ranked Illinois as one of the top states for program quality. Illinois has received praise for its teacher training, as one of the only states to require certification for its early childhood teachers.

Education highlights of the budget include:

Investing in children

During his first three years, Blagojevich dedicated $2.3 billion of new funding into Illinois schools. This represents more new money invested in education than any other state in the Midwest, more than 43 other states in the nation and more than any other administration in one term in Illinois history.

For the fourth consecutive year, Blagojevich has provided a major increase in education funding -- $415 million more for education from pre-kindergarten through high school. The budget also funds landmark initiatives proposed by the governor, including universal preschool, a pilot program to reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and a grant for families struggling to afford the high costs of college. The total increase in education funding over four years is $3.8 billion, and the year-to-year increase from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2007 is $1.5 billion.

School funding increases

This year's budget includes a $415 million increase for education spending for pre-kindergarten through high school, bringing the state's new funding for education to more than $3.8 billion over the last four years. This represents the largest increase by an administration in Illinois history.

Helping middle-class families pay for college

Building on his ongoing efforts to make college more affordable for students and families, Blagojevich provided the Monetary Award Program with its largest increase in 10 years, a boost of 10 percent over fiscal 2006, and expanded the program to help middle-income families as well. With a new investment of $34.4 million, Illinois will create MAP Plus to help middle-class families who don't qualify for the traditional MAP grants and who struggle to afford rising college tuition costs. MAP Plus will provide a grant of $500 per student for sophomores, juniors and seniors who attend college in Illinois. An additional increase of $34.4 million will boost MAP grants to their statutory maximum of up to $4,968, which will help more students and their parents afford college. In total, 225,000 students will benefit from the creation of MAP Plus and the additional funding for MAP.

Classroom size reduction

To reduce the size of Illinois kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, Blagojevich earmarked $10 million to help schools pay for more teacher salaries and benefits. Senate Bill 2882, sponsored by Sen. Terry Link and Rep. Michael Smith, creates a pilot program that will distribute the $10 million award as $50,000 grants among schools throughout the state. More teachers mean smaller classes. And, smaller classes mean more attention for each student from the teacher and a better learning environment.

Increase for higher education

This year's budget includes a $48 million increase for higher education. Universities will receive more than $18 million to attract and retain the best faculty, and community college grants will increase by almost $7 million.

In addition to his efforts in expanding access to early childhood education, Blagojevich has also been committed to expanding access to health care for children in Illinois. In November, he signed a law creating the All Kids program, which provides all Illinois children with access to affordable, comprehensive health insurance.

[News release from the governor's office]

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