Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois has earned high marks from advocates of early-childhood education in recent years for keeping his promise to increase funding for preschool by $30 million each year since 2003. Now, with his latest plan to provide prekindergarten to all 3- and 4-year-olds in Illinois, his approval rating among supporters of preschool has shot up even higher.
In his budget address last month, the Democratic governor, who is running for re-election this year, said he wants to increase spending for preschool, which now amounts to $244 million, by $45 million each year for the next three years. The funding would allow 32,000 more children to attend preschool classes, offered by a variety of school- and community-based providers. In future years, Mr. Blagojevich said, even more funding might be required to cover al interested families.
“Nothing is more important to parents than their children. And nothing is more important to a child’s future than getting a good education,” the governor said in a Feb. 12 press release about his plan. “That’s where preschool comes in.”
Illinois already serves roughly 64,000 “at risk” 3- and 4-year-olds through its Early Childhood Block Grant program, administered through the state education agency.
But if the proposal is adopted, the state will become the third—in addition to Georgia and Oklahoma—to try to reach all children who meet the age requirements, regardless of their parents’ income. Although New York technically has universal pre-K, funding has never reached the level needed to offer classes to all children across the state.
Illinois would be the first, however, to provide a “universal” program for 3-year-olds in addition to 4-year-olds. New Jersey provides preschool classes for 3-year-olds in only certain school districts, under an order by the state supreme court in the Abbott v. Burke educational equity lawsuit.
Proponents of Gov. Blagojevich’s plan say it includes the components needed for a high-quality program, including setting aside money for program improvement and requiring that teachers have a bachelor’s degree.
The proposed program, which would run for at least 2½ hours a day, is largely based on the recommendations of the Illinois Early Learning Council, a group of early-childhood experts and advocates formed in 2004.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, which releases an annual report card on state preschool programs, Illinois already scores a 9 out of a possible 10 on indicators of quality.
Some experts, though, say there’s not enough research supporting the theory that preschool teachers need a bachelor’s degree.
Gary Henry, a Georgia State University public-administration professor who has studied Georgia’s lottery-financed pre-K program, found last year that whether a pre-K teacher had a teaching certificate had no bearing on how children performed in the program.
Although Georgia doesn’t require teachers to have a four-year degree, the state does offer financial incentives to pre-K sites that hire teachers with more education. Mr. Henry also suggested in his research that teachers who have a two-year degree or a technical diploma do as well as those with a bachelor’s degree because the state provides training and on-site assistance for teachers.
Most public preschool programs only serve 4-year-olds and are focused on early literacy, mathematics, and school-readiness skills. If classes are open to 3-year-olds, it’s usually on a limited basis. Programs that serve both ages, experts say, need to accommodate the wide range of emotional and educational needs in the classroom, if the ages are mixed.
“With a group of 3’s and 4’s together, the developmental range is quite large, and it takes a talented teacher to be able to individualize instruction across the developmental range in that classroom,” said Walter S. Gilliam, an associate research scientist at the Yale University Child Study Center. “Mixed-age groups can be wonderful when done well, but they can also be a challenge to do well.”
Other researchers say that even when the ages aren’t mixed, preschool teachers shouldn’t have the same expectations of 3-year-olds that they do of older children.
While 3-year-olds are still straddling the divide between toddlers and preschoolers, said Sean Noble, the director of government relations at Voices for Illinois Children, an advocacy group based in Chicago, parents “are already excited about the prospects of having not one, but two years of high-quality early-learning experiences.”
Meanwhile, aside from the discussion over the best way to design preschool classes, some critics are calling Gov. Blagojevich’s plan a politically motivated effort to help him win re-election, and say that the state simply can’t afford to spend the money.
And Collin Hitt, a policy associate at the Illinois Policy Institute, a free-market think tank in Springfield, argues that the benefits of preschool are still unclear.
He also disputes calculations that $45 million a year for the next three years is enough to provide the program to every family that wants it. In an interview, he said that the governor’s proposal may not be the “giant steps” that Mr. Blagojevich wants the public to think it is, and he attributed the announcement to the “campaign season.”
But Mr. Noble said the funding proposal should be enough to meet the need and continue the state’s emphasis on preschool.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Illinois Governor’s Plan for 3-Year-Olds Drawing Attention