From the Desk of Robin Steans – Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – Early Childhood

Posted on May 19, 2020

This is the final installment of our three-part series that shares our views on the urgency of providing resources and ongoing support to early childhood education, K-12, and postsecondary. This is the early childhood installment.

From the Desk: Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – Part 3: Early Childhood

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Consistent and compelling research has demonstrated the numerous academic and social emotional benefits that accrue when young children participate in high-quality early childhood education and care, such as child care and preschool. Moreover, quality programs enable parents to work and financially provide for their families. Despite its importance, Illinois’ early childhood education and care (ECEC) system is composed of a fragmented, complex array of programs and funding supported by multiple state and federal agencies. Many ECEC providers struggle to navigate this complexity while operating on razor-thin margins and struggling to pay staff living wages that support quality programs and outcomes. Parents across the state are challenged to find high-quality and affordable care while only one in four children enter school “kindergarten ready.” And, that was before COVID-19.

The current crisis highlights the fragility of our system. ECEC providers, many of whom are paid based upon attendance, are facing dramatic hits to revenue. Indeed, nearly 50% of Illinois child care programs are at risk of closing permanently without public support. While Illinois has continued to pay publicly funded providers despite diminished attendance, it is unclear how long the state can continue to cover these costs. State support also does not cover lost fees from tuition-paying parents. Although the last federal stimulus package included $3.5B for child care across the nation, sustaining the child care industry through closures could cost an estimated $9.6B a month. The roughly $118M Illinois received will not go far in this time of immediate crisis. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of children are now unable to access care and support with unclear long-term impacts to their growth and development.

While the state deserves accolades for its crisis management, we must now focus on recovery and the opportunity to rebuild and strengthen our early childhood education and care system.

From Crisis to Recovery

As Illinois turns the corner from crisis to recovery and seeks to jumpstart the state’s economy, we must first ensure families have somewhere to place their children and their trust as they return to the workplace. To do this, we must keep in mind the following:

  • Families need to be confident that their children are in high-quality programs that will keep them healthy and safe. In a recent survey, 75 percent of families indicated concern about sending their children back to child care due to the threat of COVID-19. To minimize this threat, the state should extend some temporary requirements put in place during the crisis, such as reduced class sizes. However, other requirements relaxed during the crisis – such as decreased qualifications for teachers – must be resumed. Well-qualified teachers, adept at addressing children’s cognitive and social-emotional needs, will be vital to helping children transition back into care, enhance their learning, and navigate a strange world of social distancing in a developmentally appropriate way.
  • There is an immediate federal role to ensure providers have consistent and adequate funding to stay viable, shift their business models, and address children’s and families’ needs. As the state rethinks child care given social distancing guidelines, we must consider how those requirements will impact providers and families. Smaller class sizes, more frequent cleaning, and other provisions mount up to higher per-child costs – significantly higher than the state and most families are able to afford. Providers already operating on thin margins will not be able to keep their doors open without additional revenue. With the state facing dire budget challenges and many families at their limit, we risk parents being forced to quit jobs and providers closing permanently. The state needs significant additional flexible federal stimulus dollars to get families back to work and young children safely back to formal learning and care environments.
  • Even in these tight budget times, lawmakers in Springfield must prioritize ECEC and increase funding for the sector so that we can continue to provide critical services for our most under-resourced families. Current state funding for the Child Care Assistance Program, the Early Childhood Block Grant, Early Intervention, evidence-based home visiting, and other services provides critical programming to give children the best chance to succeed in school and in life. Likewise, our state’s ability to get economically back on track depends on the vitality of this sector. 

From Recovery to Rebuilding

We must also act on the opportunity to rebuild and strengthen our ECEC system for the long term. With the support of the Early Learning Council, the Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding Commission, and other stakeholders, state leaders have the chance to build an ecosystem of governance, infrastructure, and funding designed to equitably support all children and families with high-quality early childhood education and care. At this juncture, state leaders should keep in mind the following:

  • Now more than ever, Illinois needs a plan to adequately and equitably fund our ECEC system. Access to high-quality state-funded services should not depend upon where one lives or how much one’s family is able to pay. Yet, only about 50 percent of Illinois children under the age of five and 30 percent of infants and toddlers from low-income households are being served through state-funded ECEC programs with large variability across the state. Additionally, the cost of state-subsidized childcare currently depends not on parents’ ability to pay but the state agency that supports their children’s care. That is not an equitable system.

  • State funding to providers must be adequate and distributed in a way that incentivizes stable, quality environments. Unstable and varying funding structures coupled with payments based upon fluctuating attendance leave providers struggling to weather bumps under normal circumstances. The COVID-19 crisis could decimate a significant portion of the market. Illinois must prioritize paying providers in a timely, transparent, and predicable way to ensure a healthy system of providers that can plan for and deliver quality programs with well-qualified and well-compensated staff.

  • We must prioritize pathways to quality with the resources to get there. Early learning is only impactful if our programs are high quality, and high-quality programs are contingent on programs’ ability to pay a well-qualified workforce a worthy, livable wage. However, simply paying providers more will not instantly enable excellence. Thoughtfully planned phased-in funding coupled with technical assistance can scaffold programs’ ability to meet increasingly rigorous standards of quality.

  • We have an opportunity to better align the early childhood care and education infrastructure to more efficiently and effectively meet children’s and families’ needs. Currently, families, providers, and state agencies must cobble together programs and funding from various agencies to weave a system of comprehensive, quality family supports. During a pandemic or not, the children of Illinois will benefit from an aligned system under a more unified structure. Though managing the change to streamline early childhood programming will be no easy lift, the benefits will lead to better outcomes for everyone, especially our most vulnerable families.

COVID-19 has dealt a significant blow to our ECEC system. Unlike in K-12 and post-secondary, our youngest children are largely disconnected from their programs and supports. This will have long-term impacts on children, families, and programs. For our economy to recover and for our children to get back on track, let us pivot from this crisis to significantly resource, support, and rethink this ecosystem so that we come out stronger on the other side. 

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans