Chicago Sun Times, July 26, 2006

LAW OPENS FREE PRESCHOOL TO MIDDLE CLASS

By Kate N. Grossman, Education Reporter

In a bid to become the first state to offer free preschool for anyone who wants, Gov. Blagojevich Tuesday signed his historic "Preschool for All" program into law.

The new law lets the state spend its money on preschool for any child, regardless of income. Previously, only low-income students or kids otherwise academically "at risk" were eligible.

The Legislature set aside $45 million to pay for 10,000 new preschool slots this year. Already, federal and state dollars pay for preschool for 130,000 at-risk Illinois children. The governor's goal is to reach 190,000 3- and 4-year-olds by 2010.

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Sidebar: PRESCHOOL FOR ALL

Illinois 3- and 4-year-olds in free preschool now: 130,000 (75,000 paid for by state; 55,000 paid mostly by federal grants)

Number of new preschool slots for 2006: 10,000

Goal by 2010: 50,000 more slots, for a total of 190,000 preschoolers. Roughly 340,000 children are 3 and 4 years old in a given year. The governor's office estimates at least 50 to 60 percent will sign up for free preschool, based on experiences in other states.

Estimated cost for 50,000 more slots: $180 million to $240 million.

SOURCE: GOV. BLAGOJEVICH'S OFFICE

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This year's new 10,000 slots are prioritized for at-risk students, including those with language barriers and developmental disabilities, and for middle-income families earning less than four times the poverty rate, or $80,000 for a family of four.

"Study after study and basic common sense tell us that giving kids the chance to start reading and learning early is the single most important step we can take toward helping them become successful students," the governor said at a Rolling Meadows preschool Tuesday.

Campaign issue

Two other states, Georgia and Oklahoma, have universal preschool for 4-year-olds but none has free preschool for all interested 3- and 4- year-olds.

"This is a bill that can raise the bar for the rest of the country," Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a Harvard professor of pediatrics and national child development expert, said Tuesday.

But whether Illinois can get to 190,000 preschool slots is an open question.

Blagojevich's opponent in the November general election, State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, accused Blagojevich of taking the "taxpayers' credit card on another campaign spending spree."

"Instead of paying for the program honestly, he's saddled these children with record state debt for them to pay," she said in a statement.

As for the future, Topinka's spokesman, John McGovern said she "is open to the expansion of this program and as governor she will work with the Legislature to assess the level of need and the availability of funding."

If Blagojevich is elected, his supporters say, his record of increased funding for preschool bodes well for future expansions. In the last four years, Illinois has spent an additional $90 million to add 35,000 new preschool slots for at-risk kids.

The "Preschool for All" bill passed the General Assembly -- unanimously in the House and with 10 dissenting votes in the Senate.

"We've put the state on record saying access to universal preschool is a commitment of the state," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, (D- Chicago), who sponsored the bill, along with the bill 20 years ago that established free preschool for at-risk students. "Yes, we have further to go but we've already come a pretty long way."

Illinois' preschool program already leads the nation, both in terms of quality and the number of children served, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Illinois is one of just 13 states to require certification for its early childhood teachers.

For more information about free preschool, call the State Board of Education, (866) 262-6663.

kgrossman@suntimes.com

Copyright 2006, Digital Chicago Inc.