CHICAGO – Nearly nine months after he visited the Carole Robertson Center for Learning on Chicago’s near west side and promised to bolster the state’s commitment to early childhood development programs if he was elected, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich returned Wednesday to sign two pieces of legislation that fulfill his promise.
“We know that children have an immense capacity for learning very early in life, and those who have an opportunity to start the education process early have much better chances of succeeding in school and later in life,” said Blagojevich. “Now that we know these things, it’s our responsibility to extend the chance to get an early start to as many kids as possible.”
During the state budget negotiations this spring, Blagojevich proposed and won support for an additional $30 million investment in the Early Childhood Block Grant to help more than 8,000 at-risk three and four-year olds who are currently on a waiting list finally get access to preschool. The increase is the first step in a three-year plan to make preschool available to every one of the approximately 25,000 three and four year-olds in Illinois who are at risk of falling behind when they enter school.
Today Blagojevich took another major step toward establishing a statewide early childhood system by signing Senate Bill 565, sponsored by state Rep. Deborah Graham and state Sen. Don Harmon, which creates the Illinois Early Learning Council. The Council’s goal is to develop a high quality early learning system that will be available to children age five and younger throughout the state. It will look into ways to expand and improve existing, successful early childhood development programs – including Head Start, pre-kindergarten, health care and parental support programs. The Council will report its recommendations to the Governor and General Assembly annually.
Blagojevich named Harriet Meyer, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, as chair of the new Council. Meyer recently co-chaired the Early Childhood Committee for the Blagojevich transition team, and in 2002, she co-chaired the Finance Committee of the Illinois Task Force on Universal Preschool. Since 1998, she has also overseen the development of the Birth to Five Project, an ambitious effort funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Other Early Learning Council members will be appointed in coming weeks – one by each legislative leader and the rest by the Governor – drawing from the public and private sectors throughout the state.
“Harriet Meyer has been leading the discussion and pushing the agenda on the critical need for a comprehensive, coordinated effort to support learning and development in the early years of kids’ lives. Under her leadership, the brightest minds from the education and child advocacy fields together with policymakers in state government will help us craft an early childhood system that will give all Illinois children a shot at academic success and open doors for them in the future,” Blagojevich said.
The Chicago Child-Parent Center study demonstrated that at-risk children who received high quality early education are 41 percent less likely to need special-education services, 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school, and 33 percent less likely to be involved in criminal activity. The Carolina Abecedarian Project found that children who received child care and education from infancy to age 5 were twice as likely to have attended a 4-year college, and scored higher in reading and math than those who did not receive early childhood education.
In addition to improving children’s likelihood to achieve, an article in the August 26, 2002 edition of Business Week cited the economic benefits of investing in early childhood education. By reducing arrest rates, increasing the tax base and better preparing the workforce, some of the best early childhood programs have resulted in a payback of nearly $4 for every $1 invested.
Blagojevich also signed House Bill 294, sponsored by state Rep. Harry Osterman and state Sen. Donne Trotter, that expands eligibility for childcare assistance to thousands of Illinois families. Under the new law, the income eligibility standard will be adjusted every year to equal 50% of the current state median income. This year that would mean eligibility for a family of three is increased from those making $24,243 a year to those making $27,933 a year. In all, an additional 14,000 children will have access to childcare services.
The income eligibility threshold for childcare assistance hasn’t been updated since 1997, causing some families to lose eligibility for assistance when their salaries were increased, even for mere adjustments to reflect the rate of inflation.
“Childcare is an expensive service that many families can’t do without. I want to thank Rep. Osterman for urging his colleagues to update the childcare assistance law and make sure we are still able to help the families this program was originally intended for,” said Blagojevich.