Pritzker proposes creation of new standalone early childhood agency

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Gov. Pritzker named Ann Whalen to serve as transition director for the consolidation process. She has worked the last two years as policy director for the education advocacy group Advance Illinois and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration. — Capitol News Illinois PHOTO

SPRINGFIELD – Vowing to make Illinois the top state in the nation for child care accessibility, Gov. JB Pritzker unveiled a plan Tuesday to consolidate all the state’s early childhood programs and funding into one new state agency.

“Early Childhood program governance has to be unified in its focus on serving children and families, easing the burden on providers and promoting equity,” Pritzker said at a news conference in Chicago. “Other states like Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Georgia, among others, have already created a unified state agency solely dedicated to early childhood. It’s time for Illinois to do the same.”

Currently, the state’s early childhood services are spread across three state agencies. The Illinois State Board of Education administers early childhood block grants, which help fund preschool programs in areas with limited access to them. The Department of Human Services administers programs that subsidize the cost of child care services, home visits and early intervention services for lower-income families. And the Department of Children and Family Services is in charge of licensing day care providers.

“Anybody, as a parent, who has tried to go through the system of getting everything that you need – from home visiting, to early intervention services, to childcare, to preschool, some accessing all four of those things – knows that it is an impossible bureaucracy to try to access all of those things,” Pritzker said. “I mean … it’s at least a half-time job to just do those things, to find those services. And we need to make it so much easier.”

Pritzker made the announcement on the opening day of the General Assembly’s fall veto session. To start the multiyear process, he signed an executive order to reorganize the functions but said he will work with lawmakers on legislation to formalize the process in the spring.

In the meantime, he named Ann Whalen to serve as transition director for the consolidation process. She has worked the last two years as policy director for the education advocacy group Advance Illinois and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration.

Pritzker also announced he is forming an external advisory committee that will gather input from stakeholders in preparation of the consolidation proposal. That committee will be chaired by Bela Moté, CEO of the Carole Robertson Center for Learning, one of the largest early childhood and youth development organizations in Chicago.

Pritzker said the idea for the consolidation grew out of an Early Childhood Funding Commission he established in 2019 to study and make recommendations on ways to provide equitable access to high-quality early childhood education and care services for children birth to age five.

Among that group’s recommendations was a call to consolidate all early childhood programs into a single new agency.

Last spring, state lawmakers approved a budget for the current fiscal year that included a $250 million increase in funding for early childhood programs. That initiative, which Pritzker called Smart Start Illinois, included a $75 million increase in early childhood block grants; $130 million to stabilize wages for child care workers; a $40 million increase for early intervention programs; and $5 million to expand the IDHS home visiting program.

Other investments the state is making in early childhood programs include $100 million in capital funding to build new preschools and day care centers and expand existing ones; $70 million for the Child Care Assistance Program; $12 million in funding for scholarships and apprenticeships to grow the child care workforce; and $1.6 million to launch the Dolly Parton Imagination Library.

State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders said those investments will pay dividends as the children receiving those services advance through school and into adulthood.

“The research is unequivocal that funding high-quality early learning is one of the best investments we can make as a state,” he said. “Increasing access to preschool leads to stronger social, economic and life outcomes for all students.”

Capitol News Illinois reporter Andrew Adams contributed to this story.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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