Recent News

Advance Illinois Statement on Illinois P-20 Council and EdSystems Framework Report

Advance Illinois Communications

CHICAGO, IL (November 19, 2020) – Students and educators across the state continue engaging in various methods of learning and adjusting in real-time as the COVID-19 pandemic ravages through our communities with no end in sight. And, it is clear that the circumstances have made information gathering much more difficult for the state, districts and educators at a time when it is most needed.

The recent report A Framework and Resources for Measuring Student Needs and Development During Remote and Blended Learning by the Illinois P-20 Council and EdSystems provides insight and resources from local and national practitioners and thought leaders on what information schools and districts might find helpful at this time and strategies for gathering it in a way that meets the very different circumstances on the ground. We hope this is a timely resource for our state during these unparalleled times. The report compiles input gathered by the P-20 Council’s Data, Assessment and Accountability (DAA) Committee and is informed by focus groups and roundtables with teachers and administrators. Many thanks to EdSystems for their support in researching and preparing this resource.

Our students are counting on us to give them the best educational experience possible, and we must deliver. The social, emotional, health and academic impacts of this crisis are significant and will undoubtedly be felt for years to come.

At Advance Illinois, we would like to extend our gratitude to parents, educators and workers on the front-lines as they have gone above and beyond to serve their students and their communities. Together, we will work to help ensure a successful future for each student.  


About Advance Illinois
Advance Illinois is an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a healthy public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. Since its founding in 2008, Advance Illinois has become a nationally recognized thought leader in education policy advocacy. To learn more, visit

Advance Illinois Statement Regarding the Illinois State Board of Education 2020 Illinois Report Card

Advance Illinois Communications

CHICAGO, IL (October 30, 2020) – Today, the Illinois State Board of Education released its 2020 Illinois Report Card. On behalf of Advance Illinois, president Robin Steans shares the following statement: 

“First, I want to applaud ISBE for its transparency and honesty in this year’s report card. We all can agree that 2020 has been a year unlike any other. We know that regardless of best efforts, COVID-19 has made gathering essential data an uphill battle. Advance Illinois commends ISBE for compiling, analyzing, and reporting as much data as possible from the disrupted 2019-2020 school year and for laying out so clearly what data is missing and/or compromised.  

There are notable accomplishments in this year’s report card. We applaud the state on its ongoing efforts to integrate new data elements such as Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) and another year of school-level financial data.  

As disruptions to in-person learning are ongoing, there is an urgent need to gather the data necessary to understand the pandemic’s effects on Illinois students. In the 2019-20 school year, the state received a federal waiver and understandably did not administer the end of year state assessment this past spring. Looking ahead, we run the risk of another year of massive social, emotional, and academic impact and an even greater need for information we can use to understand how students have been affected and how we can most equitably respond to their needs. We appreciate ISBE’s ongoing work to gather as much data as possible under the circumstances and salute them in their efforts.” 


About Advance Illinois
Advance Illinois is an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a healthy public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. Since its founding in 2008, Advance Illinois has become a nationally recognized thought leader in education policy advocacy. To learn more, visit

New Data Show Statewide Snapshot of Kindergarten Readiness Encouraging Progress on Kindergarten Readiness: Still A Long Way To Go


José L. García

CHICAGO, IL – Data from the statewide Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS), released today by the Illinois State Board of Education, provides a snapshot of the skills of beginning kindergarteners in Illinois in the fall of 2019 and reflects the second consecutive year of increases in kindergarten readiness scores. Given KIDS is a relatively new tool, teachers are gaining expertise in observational data collection each year of implementation – making data and trends more conclusive every year.

Over 6,300 teachers observed nearly 120,000 kindergarteners (91 percent of all IL kindergarteners) with the KIDS tool in the fall of 2019. From fall 2018, the number of students scored as demonstrating readiness to learn at a kindergarten level increased from 26 percent to 29 percent, and fewer students were scored as having not reached readiness in any area – down from 39 percent to 37 percent. However, the third year of statewide KIDS data continues to reveal systemic inequities. For example, 23 percent of Black and 17 percent of Latino children demonstrated readiness, compared to 35 percent of their white peers. Significantly fewer children with IEPs (14 percent), English Learners (14 percent), and children qualifying for free/reduced price lunch (20 percent) were scored as “kindergarten ready,” indicating that Illinois has important work to do to close gaps in opportunity and outcomes.

Although it is encouraging to see overall kindergarten readiness numbers grow, it will take more data to draw definitive conclusions about readiness trends in Illinois.

KIDS provides a consistent indicator of readiness across the state, which is a critical starting point in efforts to support and promote more equitable outcomes for children, particularly among communities with the fewest resources. The most recent KIDS data underscores the need for deeper investment in high-quality early childhood services for children before they enter kindergarten, with a specific focus on equity – particularly improving access and quality for children from Black and Latino communities, children from low-income households, English Learners, and students with special needs.

KIDS data also highlights the critical need for the Governor’s Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding Commission. Appointed in December, the Commission is tasked with taking a fresh look at the state’s early childhood education and care system and establishing funding goals and mechanisms to provide equitable access to high-quality early childhood education and care services for children from birth to age five. The Commission’s recommendations to the Governor in January will represent a critical milestone towards ensuring all children are ready for kindergarten. 

Having standardized kindergarten readiness data has already catalyzed significant systems change across the state. Examples abound of how use of KIDS  has prompted shifts from half-day to full-day kindergarten, driven a move toward more developmentally-appropriate play-based instruction, informed adjustments to curriculum, galvanized community-wide attention to critical impact of experiences of children prior to kindergarten, and fostered stronger relationships between preschools and public schools.  

Looking forward, now more than ever, educators will need to understand what their students know and are able to do, as children enter school with disrupted preschool experiences due to COVID-19.

We applaud the continued collaboration between educators, ISBE, public policy makers, advocates and researchers as they work through the challenges presented by COVID.  In the meantime, we are glad to have information that can be used to strengthen and connect the systems, investment and learning that happens in early childhood programs through transitions into kindergarten and the early elementary grades.

The 2019-2020 Illinois Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) Report: A Look at Kindergarten Readiness provides additional information about the KIDS fall 2019 data. Visit to learn more about KIDS.

This statement was released in collaboration with other partner organizations. For a full list, click here.


About Advance Illinois
Advance Illinois is an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a healthy public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. Since its founding in 2008, Advance Illinois has become a nationally recognized thought leader in education policy advocacy. To learn more visit

From the Desk of Robin Steans – Under Impossible Circumstances, Let’s Do Remote Right…

From the Desk: Under Impossible Circumstances, Let’s Do Remote Right…

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

…But first, thank you. As we write, schools across the state are beginning to open. They do so amidst the most challenging set of circumstances we are ever likely to face and with only imperfect options. We want to begin by thanking administrators and educators and parents who are working tirelessly to make the best of an impossible situation with ever-changing information, insufficient resources and in the midst of serious health and safety concerns. We salute and admire your dedication. Please know that our effort to understand and share best practices comes from a shared sense of purpose – to help mitigate the negative impact of this crisis on the next generation. 

After listening to health and safety concerns of students, families and educators, Chicago Public Schools and many of the 851 other districts across Illinois plan for full or partial remote learning this fall. For many districts, this has been a gut-wrenching decision made amidst strong feelings and shifting information. Under normal circumstances, in-person instruction is best for most students, and most educators, students and families crave a return to normalcy. With that said, it is clear that remote and blended learning are here to stay for the immediate future. Accordingly, we must unite behind our schools and find creative ways to ensure that remote learning does not prevent students and families from getting the social, emotional, mental-health and academic supports they need to be successful.

Sadly, we don’t have much insight or data into how remote learning went across the state this past spring, though survey data of the nation at large show vast inequities. The percentage of students logging in to remote learning differed significantly by race/ethnicity. Students at majority-White schools received graded assignments at a higher rate than those in majority Black and Latinx schools. Similar disparities appear in surveys on the hours teachers spent instructing and on other metrics of student engagement. Left undressed, these inequities may have lasting impacts for our students’ academic and long-term financial success.

To better understand the Illinois context for this fall, Advance Illinois reviewed a sampling of districts’ spring remote plans against known best practices. While only a proxy for what actually happened, these plans highlight areas of strength, attention and need as we dive into fall semester.

What can we learn from remote learning plans posted this past spring?

As COVID-19 hit Illinois, districts were forced to adapt to remote learning with little time to prepare. While the Illinois State Board of Education released remote learning recommendations by March 27, 2020 – just ten days after remote learning was announced – it is unclear to what extent districts were able to incorporate best practices into remote learning this past spring. To explore this question, we identified commonly-recommended best practices in remote learning, then compared remote learning plans from a sample of 100 of Illinois’ 852 school districts. [1] [For an actionable summary of national best practices, click here.]  Our examination found that:

  • The vast majority (89/100) of sampled districts published easily accessible remote learning plans, demonstrating admirably clear and transparent communication with families. At the same time, many plans reflected the pressures under which they were created. Specifically, most plans would have benefitted from greater specificity. While most districts noted that remote curricula should be aligned with state learning standards, fewer provided additional curricular support. And while the vast majority of districts noted that all students that receive EL, ILP, IEP or 504 plans would continue to receive accommodations​, very few districts were able to provide specific details on remote learning tactics and assistive technologies. Looking ahead, districts will want to provide as detailed guidance as possible for accessing and using the digital infrastructure needed to participate in remote learning; have effective, standards-aligned instruction and the ability to track student engagement; and social-emotional and mental health supports for students and educators.
  • The level of need in a district did not determine the quality of remote learning plans. While significant variation in district learning plans existed across the state (as one might expect), it is heartening to see that amongst our sample, the level of need in a district was not correlated with the detail or thoroughness of remote learning plans.
  • Larger districts located in cities and suburbs tended to have more thorough and detailed remote learning plans. This finding likely reflects the particular challenges of rural districts in the face of COVID-19, including fewer staff to respond to rapidly-changing circumstances and disproportionately poorer internet access.

Districts deserve acclaim for their quick pivots to and transparent communication of remote learning plans – a considerable lift under difficult circumstances. Now, as remote and blended instruction continues, we have the opportunity to learn and improve. Parents are playing an increasingly significant role in their students’ day-to-day learning, and they need support and information. While remote and blended learning plans are only a proxy for actual practice, they prompt and reflect district planning and care, and they provide an important roadmap to help parents, educators and school leaders provide the best supports possible in challenging times.

SIDE-BAR [District Spotlights]

Bloom Township 206: Prioritized standards and course content developed by PLCs

Bloom Township’s remote learning plan prioritized learning standards that had been determined by teachers in PLCs; teachers were expected to teach course content in alignment with these prioritized standards.  
Champaign Unit 4 SD: Bilingual Parent Liaisons

Champaign schools’ plan noted several supports for bilingual students and families, including: Requiring that weekly messages to families from principals be translated into French and SpanishDesignating Bilingual Parent Liaison roles to ensure continued communication with bilingual students and families.  

Looking to the year ahead

As the continued threat of COVID-19 forces many parts of our state to continue remote or blended learning this fall, high-quality remote learning plans and implementation will be key to effective instruction. We know that, regardless of best efforts in the face of unprecedented challenges, student academic learning has suffered. While remote and blended instruction is certainly an immensely difficult transition for our teachers and schools, there is a real danger that this period will deepen disparities across income, race, language and learning style. As we look ahead, we have a shared goal of ensuring all students have access to high-quality instruction and support in these difficult times. For our state, this means providing:

  • Supports for educators. Across the state, educators need resources, training and feedback to effectively serve students in this new context. This is especially true for new teachers, who will need particular coaching and support due to disruptions in their own preparation.
  • Resources to close the digital divide. In order to access and deliver effective remote and blended instruction, students and educators need devices, internet connectivity, technical support and high-quality platforms and curricula designed for digital delivery. While Illinois has invested over $80M in new funds for devices, connectivity and professional development, this covers less than 15 percent of Illinois students, and a huge digital access gap remains.
  • Rigorous and quality content expectations. Remote and blended learning environments mean entirely new methods of instruction. As 852 districts sift through an array of curricula, digital platforms and other resources, the state should work to ensure that every student is in a classroom with high-quality, culturally relevant instructional materials that are aligned to grade-level learning standards.
  • Focus on the social-emotional and mental-health needs of our students and staff. Educators need training and support to identify and address trauma, including their own. 
  • Intentional and meaningful family engagement. As remote and blended learning continues, family engagement is more crucial than ever. Collaboration between schools, communities and families is necessary to improve our students’ learning experiences over the next year.
  • Data. We need to know the impact of COVID-19 on student learning and engagement in order to effectively address challenges. As remote and blended learning environments continue into the fall, the state and districts need new ways to understand student learning and engagement. We then must use this information to make real-time, mid-course corrections to our plans. We are in a fluid environment and must equip ourselves to adapt and improve.

We know that COVID-19 is impacting all students and families, but it is disproportionately hurting our communities of color and families of lower income background. This fall and beyond, we need to take an equity lens to our work and provide additional supports to highly-impacted student groups.

We are all in this together

It will take us years to recover and rebuild from the impact of COVID-19. Sadly, there is no vaccine for disrupted learning and missed opportunities. While it is essential to double down and focus on making the best of our current situation, we must also continue to plan true and meaningful recovery in order to continue to close gaps in opportunity across Illinois’ educational system. It will take all of us working together to make that happen. If we bring half the energy, dedication and spirit to longer-term recovery work that educators and families are bringing to this moment, then we are already on our way.

[1] Our sample consisted of a weighted sample of IL’s large, medium, and small school districts, while still including the 24 largest school districts. The final sample of 100 school district does closely reflect Illinois’ percentage of White students and percentage of low-income students, although we did oversample both large districts and those classified as cities.

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans

Advance Illinois Statement on Education Trust’s “Segregation Forever” Report

CHICAGO, IL (July 23, 2020) At Advance Illinois, we know that the future viability of our state relies on an education system that works to overcome historic inequities by providing exceptional opportunities for all students. However, a recent report published by the Education Trust reveals a persistent and severe underrepresentation of Black and Latino students in higher education. The report, “Segregation Forever,” shows that the representation of Black and Latino students in the country’s top public colleges and universities has decreased or remained disproportionately low in the past 20 years.  

We are deeply concerned to learn that, according to the report, the enrollment of Black students at some of Illinois’ top public universities has decreased over the last 20 years. According to the report’s methodology for evaluating student representation, both the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) earned grades of ‘F’ for Black enrollment. And while UIC should be commended for maintaining its ‘A’ rating for Latino enrollment, UIUC earned an ‘F’ rating for Latino enrollment.  

While we have stellar public institutions in Illinois, these scores are a clear reminder that they, as well as public education advocates and policymakers, have much more work to do to ensure that these campuses reflect the diverse population of the state. Using this study and other tools as guideposts, Advance Illinois will continue to work with our partners in education and civil rights to advocate for greater access, enrollment, retention and completion of Black and Latino students in state-funded colleges and universities. Together, we must do all that we can to increase the presence of diverse students on our college campuses.


About Advance Illinois
Advance Illinois is an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a health public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. Since its founding in 2008, Advance Illinois has become a nationally recognized thought leader in education policy advocacy. To learn more visit

Roderick K. Hawkins, Communications Director

José L. García, Communications Associate

Advance Illinois Honors the Life and Legacy of Maria Whelan

CHICAGO, IL (June 11, 2020) We are heartbroken to learn of the sudden passing of Maria Whelan, President and CEO of Illinois Action for Children. Maria made it her life’s mission to advocate for children and families across Illinois, and what a champion she was! She was a titan who believed deeply in the power of early childhood education and care and in the value of involving communities and families in the work. 

Maria was a giant in the field of early childhood, but also a fierce, funny and warm friend and colleague.  Her legacy will live on through her family, her colleagues and the hundreds of thousands of lives she has changed for good, and she will be deeply missed by all fortunate enough to know her.  One of the best tributes we can all offer is to carry her work forward with the same level of integrity, fearlessness and no-nonsense she brought to every situation and challenge.

All of us at Advance Illinois extend our hearts and condolences to Maria’s family, the Illinois Action for Children family and all who called her a friend and colleague.  It is hard to imagine this work or this world without her energy in it.

Robin Steans
Advance Illinois


About Advance Illinois
Advance Illinois is an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a health public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. Since its founding in 2008, Advance Illinois has become a nationally recognized thought leader in education policy advocacy. To learn more visit

Roderick K. Hawkins, Communications Director

José García, Communications Associate

Advance Illinois Statement on the FY21 State Budget

CHICAGO, IL (June 4, 2020) In masks and social distancing, and in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, members of the Illinois General Assembly had difficult decisions to make in last month’s special session as they did their part to put our state on the path to recovery.

We entered this year with a call for much-needed increased investments in education—from early childhood to higher education. With the impact of COVID-19 on our students and families, that need has intensified, even as the state’s budget circumstances have worsened. Accordingly, we braced ourselves for the worst.

We are relieved that, in many areas, the General Assembly kept the FY 21 education budget at or near the same level as last year, and we recognize and appreciate that this decision reflects Springfield’s understanding that education must be a priority always, especially during this unprecedented crisis. With that said, we acknowledge that the state’s finances are unstable. The approved budget relies on roughly $5 billion in borrowing, gives the governor the ability to transfer up to 8 percent of almost any budget line into another budget line and pins hopes on additional and significant federal relief funds. 

Hopefully, educators, families and students will take some comfort in knowing that the Evidence-Based Funding formula, and programs that help address the teacher shortage will receive funds on par with last year’s investment (click here for a detailed summary of the budget). And, we congratulate the General Assembly for passing legislation that acknowledges the progress of districts that have been taken over by the state and have made hard-won gains by affording them greater financial predictability, bringing intervention funding into the broader funding formula.

The state’s recovery will depend upon continued investments in early childhood and higher education—areas that have been woefully underfunded for years. While the FY 21 investments mostly stay flat, we applaud the small increases to Early Intervention (EI) and the expansion of federal resources, specifically for early childhood with the new Business Interruption Grants (BIG). We also recognize the importance of maintaining investment in MAP and institutions, especially for our undocumented and other students who are not currently eligible for federal support. We know that more work must be done to ensure that high-quality early childhood programs are available to all children and that college-bound students have access to affordable higher education options. We hope and trust these investments will continue to be a priority for the General Assembly and the governor as our budget situation improves.

We remain grateful to the General Assembly for prioritizing children, even under the cloud of COVID-19 and knowing that we face a steep set of challenges if further revenue does not materialize. But, whether or not our budget improves, we have serious work to do. Research makes it clear that our students and teachers will need more supports, more training and more time to plan and learn if we are to ensure that the impact of this pandemic does not follow children into the future. Recovery will be difficult and take focus and time, but the people of Illinois are resilient. We stand ready to do our part.


About Advance Illinois
Advance Illinois is an independent policy and advocacy organization working toward a health public education system that enables all students to achieve success in college, career and civic life. Since its founding in 2008, Advance Illinois has become a nationally recognized thought leader in education policy advocacy. To learn more visit

Roderick K. Hawkins, Communications Director

José García, Communications Associate

Advance Illinois Stands in Solidarity with the Black Community

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The brutal deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many other Black people at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes poured salt into a deep wound of racial injustice that has been centuries in the making. After many attempts throughout history by leaders and organizers to heal the wound, the pain and exhaustion have festered into public outrage across the nation.”

“Advance Illinois stands in solidarity with those who have raised their voices and peacefully taken to the streets to demand meaningful change. We also commit ourselves to working harder and in better partnership with civil rights, racial justice and community-based organizations to reimagine a public education system that is no longer business as usual. We must acknowledge the racism, missed opportunities and inequities of the past and focus on a future that is rooted in educational equity and opportunity.” 

“We all have our work cut out for us, and we must be up for the challenge – a challenge that includes making sure that this agonizing and further illumination of the deep, systemic racism at the root of so much that ails this country brings with it the seeds of change and progress. We owe it to this generation and those that follow to check – and use – our privilege, be a better ally and reaffirm the fact that Black lives matter.”

Robin Steans

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

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

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

This is the second in 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 postsecondary installment.

From the Desk: Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – Part 2: Higher Education

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

We know that a college degree —be it a technical certificate or an advanced degree—creates pathways to stable employment and wages in an increasingly competitive economy. COVID-19 jeopardizes that pathway for the nearly 750,000 students in Illinois’ higher education system. Absent clear leadership and support, COVID-19 may permanently cripple the institutions that serve our students from historically marginalized communities and negatively alter the life paths of countless Illinoisans. For our state to recover from this crisis, we will need a strong, inclusive workforce and economy. Key to that is education and training.

The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for students and institutions, including a sudden shift to remote learning, new barriers to accessing instruction and basic needs, and drastic new costs for colleges and universities. As with K-12, college students without access to devices or high-speed internet are losing ground. Even students with access to their online coursework are likely to learn less, struggle more in related future courses, and have a higher chance of dropping out due to loss of in-person instruction.

The impact goes beyond learning loss. As unemployment skyrockets and family earnings drop, the high cost of postsecondary education in Illinois will further deter college enrollment and completion. National surveys found that in April 2020, 27% of high school seniors were concerned that their first-choice school would no longer be affordable for their family. Students from lower-income households are facing more challenging financial circumstances as both their jobs and family resources are more likely to disappear, threatening with it housing security, food security, and other basic needs. Further, these circumstances will exacerbate mental health challenges and will almost certainly affect completion rates.

Unfortunately, Illinois’ postsecondary institutions have extremely limited resources to respond to increasing student need, as disproportionate cuts to higher education over the last two decades have left many institutions operating on minimal budgets. From 2000-2015, higher education in Illinois saw a 41% decrease in appropriations and an additional billion dollar cut during the 2015-17 budget impasse. These cuts have forced Illinois’ postsecondary institutions to rely more heavily on tuition and fees for funding. Declining enrollment has cut this revenue source as well. This dynamic has created the incentive for some Illinois institutions to recruit out-of-state students’ higher tuition dollars at the expense of access for Illinois students. As the pandemic continues, its impact on our state budget will require state leaders to make very difficult decisions, but not all institutions are guaranteed to survive another wave of additional cuts particularly those that serve more of our students from low-income households, students of color, and first-generation students.

Across the state, the pandemic poses more significant and disproportionate barriers to Black and Latinx students, students from lower-income households, undocumented students, and others who already face obstacles in their pursuit of postsecondary education. Without deliberate intervention, COVID-19 will have severely inequitable impacts on our students’ postsecondary access and completion and ultimately on wages, employment rates, and other life outcomes – and with these impacts our states’ workforce and tax base for years to come.

What can Illinois do?

As Illinois responds to the impact of COVID-19 on our postsecondary students and institutions, we should keep the following in mind:

  • Emergency grants will be more important than ever to the growing number of students and families facing financial instability. Financial instability will also increase the likelihood that unanticipated costs may impact a student’s ability to continue and complete their higher education. Emergency grants – which are typically small amounts of a few hundred to a thousand dollars – have helped dramatically increase completion rates in institutions across the nation. While some federal dollars have been dedicated to emergency grants for a restricted set of students, emergency funds should be accessible to all, regardless of citizenship status or other barriers.
  • Institutions that serve more students of color and students from low-income households also tend to have the fewest resources and state funding, when they need it the most.  As Governor Pritzker considers how to use his federal CARES education funds, and as the state looks ahead to future budgets, we are overdue to develop a strategy to ensure funding equity and adequacy in our postsecondary space, as we have done in K-12.
  • Current high school seniors entering college in the fall will need immediate action to ensure that processes are supportive. As current seniors enter college with varying levels of support from their final year of high school, we must ensure that all students have a smooth bridge to higher education– potentially involving targeted academic and social support. In addition, adopting a consistent, multi-measure placement framework for all institutions could help ensure that students are not penalized for academic disruption they could not control and are not inequitably placed into non-credit-bearing developmental education due to COVID-19.
  • More federal dollars are needed if we are to adequately support students and institutions. While the federal CARES Act provided ~$440M to Illinois higher education institutions, this is not enough. National leaders are calling on the federal government to provide $50 billion in additional post-secondary resources and further relief from federal loans.  We should all raise our voices in support of additional aid.

We applaud the leadership of Governor Pritzker, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, and Illinois Student Assistance Commission during this time of crisis. We also commend the hard work our college and university leaders, faculty, and staff are doing to support our students. We know that this moment calls for difficult decisions, and we appreciate the efforts made to date to ensure clarity, consistent guidance and an equity- and student- first position.

Our collective goal must be first to support our students – especially those most vulnerable to the emotional, academic and economic impact of this crisis.  From there, we should work to make our institutions and system stronger, more resilient, and more responsive to student needs.

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans