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Pritzker touts early childhood education funding

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(The Center Square) – Preschools in Illinois are expanding in some areas due to the $250 million taxpayer-funded Smart Start Program.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the Smart Start Program looks to make early childhood daycare and preschool more accessible for families throughout the state. The program is run by the Illinois State Board of Education, which hopes to add 5,000 seats in certain areas. However, on Wednesday, Pritzker said the state had exceeded that number.

“This is resulting in not 5,000 but 5,823 brand new preschool seats, every one of which is valuable for those children and their parents and our futures,” Pritzker said. “That’s 15% more than we promised for just this year, vastly exceeding our first-year goals.”

Pritzker said some areas that will be receiving funding to go toward preschool expansion have no preschool options at all.

“Fifty-nine of those 95 programs are brand new programs in places where none existed before,” Pritzker said.

State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders said the first year of Smart Start puts Illinois one step closer to achieving the goal they set forth.

“High-quality early learning experiences equip children with the social-emotional, early math and early literacy skills that lay the foundation for lifelong learning,” Sanders said. “I am so proud of our team at the Illinois State Board of Education for far surpassing our initial goal, maximizing state dollars and bringing us closer than ever to ensuring universal access to preschool statewide.”

The program aims to eliminate all preschool deserts by 2027.

“Our goal of eliminating early childhood education deserts is well on its way with ISBE’s exceptional first-year strides, and I look forward to seeing where the next year of this program will take us,” Pritzker said.

Last year, when the governor was promoting the program, House Minority Leader Tony McCombie, R-Savanna, said such programs must be sustainable.

“My question is, how is it going to be sustainable? There is nothing worse than starting a new program and having it not be sustainable,” McCombie said. “I have to look at the Evidence-Based Funding model, where schools were supposed to be fully funded after 10 years. The program should be right around the corner to end in 2027. However, in one year, FY2021, we didn’t spend the extra $350 million. Now we’re looking at, that we may never fully fund our schools.”

According to state numbers, the first year of Smart Start provided 5,383 additional children in the Preschool for All program with $21 million in grants awarded to 84 programs and 503 additional children in the Preschool for All Expansion program with $4.3 million in grants awarded to 11 programs.

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