By Duaa Eldeib
Alberto Cuevas has made a habit of picking up the phone, calling his school district and asking if a spot has opened up for either of his daughters, both of whom are on the waiting list for preschool.
Each time, the answer is the same. No. Not yet.
"We won't lose hope that they will tell us yes," Cuevas, 28, a soft-spoken factory worker, said through a translator. One of his daughters, 4-year-old Yosselyne, has spent nearly two years on the waiting list.
West Chicago Elementary District 33 is one of many in the Chicago area that has seen the number of available state-funded preschool spots plummet in the past few years as Illinois continues to slash funding for some of its smallest residents.
The trend has troubled some advocates and educators who argue that scaling back at a time when the spotlight, science and support for early childhood education have finally aligned is a step in the wrong direction -- particularly for a state that once was at the forefront of such programs.
"The state is really going backward in terms of what we should be doing, especially with limited resources for K-12 education," said David Lloyd, senior policy analyst at the nonprofit advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children. "By cutting preschool, it's really a detriment throughout the rest of children's lives, and it's very difficult for kids to catch up."
Illinois made headlines when it became the first in the country to offer state-funded preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds after lawmakers in 2006 passed then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's landmark Preschool for All initiative. Though touted as universal, the program from the start has given priority to at-risk children.
Theresa Hawley, executive director of Gov. Pat Quinn's Office of Early Childhood Development, which was created in 2009, blamed the economic downturn for the funding decline. But she said Illinois remains committed to restoring and expanding early childhood programs.
"What we know from the research is that two-thirds of the achievement gap that we see between more and less advantaged students at the end of high school is already there when they walk through the door at kindergarten," Hawley said.
Funding for early childhood programs peaked in 2009 at $380 million, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. By 2013, that figure dropped by about $80 million, and the number of 3- to 5-year-olds served also fell by about 20,000 from its height of 95,000 in 2009, state numbers show.
But the tide may be turning. Funding remained steady for fiscal year 2014, and Quinn launched a $45 million program to build or improve early childhood education facilities in underserved areas. One of the barriers to providing services was a lack of space to house the programs, Hawley said.
Federal dollars have also offered some relief. Earlier this year, Illinois received the final portion of a $52 million Race to the Top federal grant for early learning programs.
Experts say that a federal bill introduced last month could be a game-changer. Quinn's office worked with the U.S. Department of Education on the framework for the plan that proposes a state-federal partnership to expand access to free preschool and early childhood programs beginning at birth, Hawley said.
Criticism of the 10-year federal plan has centered on cost and questions of just how beneficial it will prove to be. Detractors have argued that some benefits of early childhood programs fade over time.
Many districts and providers are keeping a close eye on the bill's progress, but leaders in Oak Park couldn't wait for the state's financial situation to improve or for a federal bill that is far from final, said Oak Park Elementary School District 97 board President Bob Spatz.
In a unique model, District 97, along with the village of Oak Park and the local high school district, Oak Park-River Forest District 200, teamed up to support the Collaboration for Early Childhood to integrate services throughout the community.
The nonprofit is funded through a public-private partnership and cites research -- much of it spearheaded by University of Chicago's Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman -- that shows early, high-quality intervention for at-risk children and their families leads to more kids graduating high school, fewer brushes with the law and increased income.
A $5.4 million agreement approved earlier this year provides screenings for children from birth to 5, home visits for parents with at-risk children and training for preschool teachers and staff.
While some schools and centers have been able to dip into other funds to cobble together enough to keep their programs going, many cash-strapped districts haven't that luxury.
"These children can't wait. Their experiences are fleeting. You're only 4 once," said Diana Mendley Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based advocate and provider of early childhood programs. (Rauner is the wife of Bruce Rauner, a North Shore investor seeking the Republican nomination to run against Quinn for governor of Illinois next year.)
Educare of West DuPage, a year-round preschool in West Chicago for at-risk children 6 weeks to 5 years old that the Ounce of Prevention Fund helped establish, serves 102 children with the help of private donations.
At the West Chicago school district, which currently enrolls 240 preschoolers, there's essentially a waiting list for the waiting list, said Sandy Warner, principal of the district's Early Learning Center.
"We know we're only scratching the surface here," Warner said. "It's sad when parents come in and they want the best for their child, they want them in school, and we can't provide that. It just breaks out hearts."
Warner's office is down a hallway decorated with brightly hand-painted artwork and, on a recent weekday, echoed with the sound of kids singing about Pete the Cat's blue shoes. In a buzzing classroom tucked to the side, preschool teacher Christina Stangarone gushed about the "incredible growth" she said she's witnessed in her students over the course of two years. Some went from being nonverbal -- resorting to hitting or scratching when they wanted something -- to remembering to say "please" and "thank you," she said.
A few years ago, when funding was late once again, the district went so far as to cancel its preschool program. But the state came through at the last minute, and the district scrambled to rehire teachers, get bulletin boards decorated and inform parents that classes were back in session.
"In preschool, you never know if you'll be here the next year," Stangarone said. "You're just praying that the state will be generous and that the school district and board believe in the program."
The concern, said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, is that inconsistent funding can undermine quality programs.
"I understand it's been a long time since Illinois has had a good budget year," he said, "but it wreaks havoc at the local level."
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