The State of Early Childhood Education in Illinois | Black Voices | Chicago News
For the most part, free public education in the United States begins at the kindergarten level, when children are around 5 years old. But research continues to reveal just how critical the early years after birth are for long-term outcomes. The Smart Start program proposed by Gov. JB Pritzker would allow 5,000 more children to attend preschool next year, possibly adding a total of 20,000 slots. The plan would also add money to raise the salaries of early education providers.
April Janney, CEO of Illinois Action for Children, said she believes Pritzker’s proposal is the next iteration to make Illinois a leader in early childhood education.
“I think Illinois led overall,” Janney said. “We’ve had a long focus and investment in the smallest learners, and I think we’ve started to invest more over the years.”
Providing resources to pay preschool teachers more is an approach Meghan Gowin of the Erikson Institute said she would expect to have a strong positive impact. The Erikson Institute recently launched a teacher education program that offers three key riders – special education, bilingual/ESL, and early childhood – with the goal of accelerating certification to address teacher shortages and diversify the teaching staff.
“I actually started my career as a pre-K teacher’s assistant,” Gowin said, “and so transitioning later to get this early childhood teacher degree was to support my young children. They were 4 months and 2 years old then. I think this investment in our workforce to really make sure they are well compensated will only increase this push towards quality.
Janney said that although preschool teachers have seen certification requirements for their positions increase, their salaries have remained low.
“Majority of them are women, majority of those women are black women,” Janney said. “And so forcing them to push their training and get a better education is the cost to them, but we’re not paying them as professionals.”
Part of that mindset has always been rooted in a model of very young child care versus education, said Sonja Crum Knight, program manager and impact manager at the Carol Robertson Center for Learning. .
“It really upends those old notions of childcare, doesn’t it?” Crum Knight said. “It is work that is historically not valued because it is done by women of color. If we are thinking about what is needed for quality early care and education, this teacher training and relationship with the child is essential. So when you raise wages and build that workforce through higher education, you ensure high quality outcomes for children. It’s the sauce that isn’t so secret, but it’s there.
Gowin said the prospect of seeing more financial resources flow into a long-strained resource system is a step towards more equitable delivery of early childhood education.
“I think the investment in quality programs and the money that’s set aside for the providers to really build their own infrastructure, the money that we know is built into the support of the workforce…we’re now seeing where this investment puts that financial boost into the system, right? said Govin. “We heard it. Everyone cares about young children and families, but now we see it in dollars.