News Tribune

Uncertain state funding puts preschool in jeopardy

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Preschool and other early childhood education programs are widely regarded as a wise investment for education.

“The research is clear that the return on the investment is very significant,” according to Dan Marenda, superintendent at La Salle elementary schools. It’s estimated that for every $1 spent on early childhood programs, districts could save $7 later on when they don’t need to provide interventions for students.

Yet many districts in the area face the difficult decision of whether they can continue to offer programs for children too young to enroll in kindergarten. A deal breaker for some districts is the uncertainty or lack of state funding.

State Rep. Frank Mautino (D-Spring Valley), who has three children of his own, agreed with school officials that early childhood programs should be a priority.

“It’s an item that is one of the more critical, so children come to school ready to learn,” Mautino said. “And we put a lot of money into these programs. In the tough budget, the goal is to make sure, if there have to be cuts, they are the least we can do.

On Monady, Mautino toured Oglesby’s programs serving children from birth until kindergarten. He spoke with mothers in the birth to 3-year-old program about the things they learn from one another in the parental training part of the morning.

“Every dollar that you put in to the budget is well-spent and it returns over and over again,” Mautino said.

Mautino said legislators worked to keep funding level for education in Illinois, but to maintain 90 percent of the funding for early childhood education while state revenue dipped by 25 percent, other areas needed deeper cuts: School transportation funding, for example, is down 45 percent.

Funding can limit access

Susan Massey, who leads an informal play group at the school, said “Mommy Talk” is an important part of her mostly-unstructured program. She conducts a “needs assessment” with the parents and grandparents who bring their children to the group. While the children play, Massey or another school employee or someone from the community will lead a program to educate parents and grandparents about aspects of child development or other relevant topics. Massey describes it as a “safe place” for parents to discuss concerns about their children’s progress.

“Coming here, at first, she (my daughter) was very shy. By the time she was in preschool, she just walked in the door… I think it would have been difficult for her if we hadn’t come here first,” Laura Kilmartin said, describing the program’s benefits for her child.

To support the weekly group, Oglesby receives a grant for parental training. Massey said the trend in Illinois is to cut down on parental training grants and push for preschools to receive prevention initiative grants.

The biggest difference, according to Massey, is the number of people she would be able to work with. The prevention initiative grants are directed to programs for “at-risk” children. That stipulation is intended to bring those students into preschool programs who will benefit the most from the extra time at school. But it also means Massey would have to turn away many families who already come to her program.

“When programs are reduced or funding gets cut, sometimes there is pressure to provide the program only for at-risk children,” explained Dan Harris, senior manager of the advocacy organization Kids Public Education and Policy Project, who toured the Oglesby schools with Mautino. He acknowledged it is a difficult year for funding in Illinois and while early childhood programs did not see a boost in funding, it was generally kept level with the preceding year.

Cuts have taken their toll

In the past two years, enrollment has changed in early childhood programs throughout the area. In most districts, it’s on the decline.

Faced with a lack of state funding, Mendota cut its preschool program for students other than special education. The program had served 80 at-risk students in the 2009-20 school year. This year, it still provides services for children up to 3 years old and for preschool children in its special education program.

“It was an incredibly difficult decision to make,” said superintendent Kristen School. “It would be my hope that if the state somehow discovers a way out of the financial crisis that they’re having, it would be a wonderful opportunity to bring this back. I’m sure our district would not be alone in that.”

Princeton’s elementary schools, on the other hand, were offered a boost in state funding this year. But staff and board members were wary after delays in state payments last year. The district cut its own preschool program by one section, anticipating costly funding delays this year.

Other districts have seen their funding fall through, but have been able to maintain their programs.

Peru public schools have not received funding through Preschool for All, but superintendent Mark Cross said the district has structured its preschool program to be ready to receive grant money if it becomes available.

“I will dare anyone to tell me that a preschool in our school system is a babysitting program,” Cross said. “We have children who come to us who need a lot of help to get ready, to make the gains they need to make academically.”

La Salle schools were told to expect about $300,000 last school year; by the end of the fiscal year in June, they had received nothing. About half of La Salle’s late payments have arrived, but the district continues to fall behind in funding. Marenda isn’t sure whether the district can keep the program for next year.

“In the past it was easier to make predictions because the state funding was there. Sometimes they were late, but they weren’t a year late,” Marenda said.

“We’re very hopeful that we will be able to continue preschool for many years here. And we wouldn’t automatically cut it just because the state funding is not there,” Marenda said.