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Affluent Chicago parents could pay up to $4,000 for preschool programs

Updated: May 7, 2013 6:10AM

Affluent Chicago parents would pay up to $4,000 a year to enroll their kids in school-based early childhood programs — and under-served Englewood would get a new early learning center — thanks to a mayoral plan unveiled Friday that’s expected to serve 2,300 more toddlers this fall.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to impose a first-ever fee for preschool programs based in public schools ­— with a sliding scale of payments based on family incomes — is designed to help Chicago expand and upgrade early childhood programs at a time when other cities have them on the chopping block.

The fee would be imposed on all parents whose kids are not eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. CPS estimates that the parents of 1,200 of the 44,600 students in the expanded preschool program would be required to pay the fee.

For a family of four earning $3,500 a month — the cutoff for free and reduced lunches — the monthly co-payment would be $16.

Families with a monthly income of $5,000 would pay $100. Those whose family incomes are $8,000 would pay the maximum, $425 a month or roughly $4,000 a year for each student.

That’s a big hit for a program that, until now, was provided for free. But Beth Swanson, Emanuel’s chief deputy for education, said it’s a bargain compared with the $6,000 annual tuition that parents pay for some private preschool programs.

“We don’t have funding for universal pre-K between state and federal money. We’re looking for new ways of increasing access to early childhood programs,” she said.

“We looked at the market of early childhood programs — private and community-based — and set a scale we think is very competitive. It’s a contribution based on what they can afford. We understand this would be a switch for some families. If they have a 3-year-old who’s now in a program for free, they will not pay. We’ll grandfather them in. But all new families ... will have to pay.”

Last fall, Emanuel announced plans to expand the capacity of city-funded preschool programs by 5,000 children by the 2015-16 school year and upgrade the quality of existing programs that, the mayor claimed, make Chicago students 29 percent more likely to graduate from high school.

Instead of doling out funding to the same organizations every year and having an array of programs that vary in quality, the city started from scratch with a whole new set of “internal and external reviewers” with expertise in what it takes to prepare kids to succeed as students.

New standards were posted online. Charter schools and faith-based organizations barred from participating before were invited to apply.

Chicago Public Schools also worked closely with the city’s Department of Family and Support Services to ensure that early childhood programs were “strategically allocated” across the city, particularly in neighborhoods with long waiting lists.

On Friday, City Hall disclosed that, as a result of the screening process, 735 schools and community-based provider locations will be funded this fall, serving 44,600 kids. That’s an increase of 2,300 and nearly half-way toward the five-year, 5,000 goal.

Six will be located in charter schools. Another 95 will be run by faith-based organizations.

To ease a shortage of high-quality options in Englewood, some of the city’s $10 million investment will go toward establishing an early childhood learning center there with the capacity to serve 370 children and families. That includes full-day pre-K for kids between the ages of 3 and 5 and full-day learning and care for those under 3.

Swanson said the long-awaited overhaul produced a roster of city-funded programs poised to provide high-quality instruction, a rigorous curriculum and strong management while engaging parents and providing “wrap-around services” to those families.

“It allowed us to look holistically at the early childhood landscape for the first time in the city. We were able to coordinate where those slots went and ensure that children and families were served,” Swanson said.

Asked why city funding was opened for the first time to charters and faith-based organizations, she said, “The mayor is agnostic to school type. Whoever is offering the highest quality, that’s who he wants serving our children.”

She added, “We know that investing in early childhood education puts them on the track to success. As young as possible. Research has shown time and again that the return on investment is seven-fold. We will see dividends down the road.”

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