Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday will propose $75 million in additional spending to add 5,000 slots to existing state-funded preschool programs, a modest down payment on an ambitious call in his second inaugural address last month to “go all in for our children and make preschool available to every family throughout the state.”
Pritzker’s preschool expansion plan is part of a $250 million proposal to boost services for the state’s youngest residents and their families. It would take the remainder of the governor’s new term to achieve an overall increase of 20,000 seats, which “actually gets us to coverage for every 3- and 4-year-old that’s looking to go to preschool,” Pritzker told reporters Tuesday during a briefing on the plan.
The second-term Democrat is set to unveil the plan, dubbed “Smart Start Illinois,” as part of his $49.6 billion spending proposal for the next budget year. Pritzker will deliver a combined budget and State of the State speech at noon in the Illinois House chamber, marking the first time he has addressed a full joint session of the state House and Senate since before the coronavirus was declared a pandemic in 2020.
“I have been involved in this arena for more than 20 years before I became governor, and I believe strongly that this is the best investment you can make in government, in fact, because of the return on investment,” said Pritzker, a billionaire heir to the Hyatt Hotels fortune who focused much of his philanthropic activity on early childhood education and health initiatives.
The full preschool expansion would require additional annual increases of $75 million over the subsequent three years, according to the governor’s office.
In the current budget year, early childhood education makes up about$598 million of the state’s $9.8 billion allocation for preschool through high school. There are about 95,000 children enrolled in state-funded preschool programs this year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
Aside from increasing funding for preschool programs, Pritzker is proposing $130 million in new spending to stabilize payments and boost wages for state-subsidized child care workers; a $40 million increase for early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental delays or other health conditions; and a $5 million increase for a home visiting program for at-risk families.
The governor’s office said the plan can be paid for without increasing taxes.
“Smart Start Illinois will make us the best place in the nation to raise young children,” Pritzker said.
Pritzker made clear he is not proposing a universal publicly-funded preschool program.
“We’re not paying for kids who are wealthy. … I paid for my kids to go to preschool,” Pritzker said. “But we need to have spots available for them. … It’s the capacity building, as well as making sure that we’re actually paying for each of the kids that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
The goal, according to Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh, is to eliminate “preschool deserts, so that every family who chooses to put their child into pre-K has a spot available.”
“We’re focusing on where there is demand to build a system that doesn’t leave spots open in one area while there are long waiting lists in other areas,” Abudayyeh said.
Pritzker is not the first governor to propose making early childhood education more widely available across Illinois.
His proposal comes 17 years, nearly to the day, after Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s election-year “Preschool for All” pitch, which aimed to make early childhood education available to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state.
Lawmakers eventually approved a program called Preschool for All, but the name is misleading.
The program has never met Blagojevich’s original goal of making school available to all children before kindergarten, instead prioritizing placements for children who are at risk of academic failure based on a variety of social and economic factors.
The difference between then and now, Pritzker said, is that the state’s financial picture has significantly improved since he took office four years ago. That’s a theme he highlighted heavily in his reelection campaign and one he’s certain to revisit in his speech Wednesday.
“Budgets were unbalanced back then. And that’s not the case anymore,” Pritzker said.
“Our budgets have been balanced and we’ve been running surpluses. We’re in a much better fiscal position today,” he said. “And so when I say that we’re aiming to continue to invest in early childhood, it’s based on the knowledge that we finally have our fiscal house in order and we ought to be investing in — and this is just one area — but we ought to be investing in this.”
The state has paid off major pandemic related debts, including a $4.5 billion hole in its unemployment insurance trust fund. It has also received credit upgrades from the three major ratings agencies and socked away $1 billion in its historically anemic rainy day fund.
While federal coronavirus relief money aided in some of those efforts, ratings agencies and other impartial observers have given credit to Pritzker and the Democratic-controlled legislature for exhibiting fiscal discipline.
Despite stubbornly high inflation and other economic headwinds, state revenues have continued to outperform expectations, leading to surpluses.
When Pritzker signed the current budget in April, it called for $46 billion in spending, a figure that has since grown to nearly $50 billion on the basis of stronger than expected revenue from sales and income taxes and other sources.
Payments to the state’s significantly underfunded pension plans will continue to put pressure on the budget, and the newfound fiscal stability likely will lead to calls for increased spending in other areas.
Pritzker himself has called for tuition-free higher education for students whose families earn at or below median income, though he’s yet to offer specifics or a price tag for the proposal.
Advocates also have been calling for the state to more rapidly increase its spending on elementary and secondary education to meet the state’s funding target for students in kindergarten through high school.
Under Pritzker, the state has met its obligation to increase school funding by at least $350 million annually, except for one year during the pandemic. But by some estimates, it would take annual increases of $1 billion to fully fund schools under a formula signed by Pritzker’s predecessor, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.
The governor wouldn’t say Tuesday whether he plans to call for increasing funding for elementary and secondary education beyond the required $350 million.
“I’m going to leave you to listen to the speech tomorrow,” he said.
On Tuesday, members of the General Assembly’s minority Republican Party discussed their own list of budgetary and legislative priorities, including some $200 million to ease high costs of energy for homes and businesses in central and southern Illinois, as well as a focus on health care.
“Are we going to take care of (people who) truly, through no fault of their own, can’t take care of themselves, the developmentally disabled?” said state Sen. Chapin Rose, a Republican from Mahomet said after a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
“If he’s going to go out and just spend a bunch on new stuff when we’re ignoring the obligations we already have, particularly (with) the most vulnerable, I think that’s where we’re going to run into some (problems),” Rose said of Pritzker.
In a separate news conference, House Republicans announced the formation of working groups that focus on improving the child welfare system, public safety, education, supporting women and families, and reigniting the economy.
“I’ve talked about the need to make Illinois a pro-growth state while protecting our workers as well as looking out for our citizens,” said GOP state Rep. Dan Ugaste, of Geneva.
“We can apply our strengths … geography, workforce, our resources, to bring creators and opportunities home here to Illinois,” Ugaste said. “But we can only do so if we address the glaring issues that are facing families and job creators in this state. Sky high property taxes, endless regulation and other costs that are just far too high in our state.”
House Republican Leader Tony McCombie of Savanna said the intent of Pritzker’s proposals for expanded preschool and free college tuition is good, but paying for it “is always the question.”
“I look forward to hearing how they’re going to fund that,” she said. “We want (the Democratic supermajority) to take the ideas of these working groups that we’re putting together. We want to pass legislation that will actually improve our state and it would be a compliment for them to take our legislation.”
Gorner reported from Springfield.