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Illinois, once ahead in preschool spending, now falling behind

President Barack Obamhigh-fives students during visit pre-kindergarten classroom College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center Decatur Ga. Thursday Feb. 14 2013.

President Barack Obama high-fives students during a visit to a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci) ORG XMIT: GAEV111

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Updated: March 18, 2013 6:48AM

When early childhood education champions in Chicago heard the president lay out a universal preschool proposal this week during the State of the Union address, they thought it rang familiar.

Quality preschool is coming for all 4-year-olds, especially for the poor kids who need extra help, President Barack Obama said last week in his State of the Union address.

Illinois, after all, has had a Preschool For All Program since 2006 that taught 3-year-olds as well as 4-year-olds in the hope of getting ahead of problems later on in life.

The state just never fully funded it, and has been cutting early education money over the last few years, most notably some $80 million from the Early Childhood Block Grant that pays for preschool.

“For a long time Illinois was way out in front on early childhood education,” said Gaylord Gieseke, president of Voices for Illinois Children. “The reality is the Obama administration . . . got a lot of their ideas about early childhood in reality from the state of Illinois.”

Obama wants to guarantee that all 4-year-olds in families earning up to 200 percent of the poverty level go to a good preschool by sharing the cost with states. That’s about $47,000 for a family of four; $63,000 for a family of six.

“Every dollar we put into early childhood education can save $7 down the road by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime, reducing the welfare rolls, making sure that folks who have work, now they’re paying taxes,” Obama said Friday in Chicago. “All this stuff pays back huge dividends if we make the investment.”

The White House has not yet said how much the proposals will work or cost, saying the details would be part of the president’s upcoming budget.

W. Steven Barnett, the economist and early education expert who heads the National Institute for Early Education Research, figured the plan could cost between $3 billion and $20 billion per year nationally, depending on how the details shake out.

That accounts for about 2 million 4-year-olds living within 200 percent of poverty, he said.

Illinois has about 73,000 preschoolers in state programs, down from about 95,000 in 2009, the program’s peak. In 2011, it ranked tops in the nation for its attention to 3-year-olds. But in the decade between 2002 and 2011, it cut its per- child preschool spending from $4,394 to $3,449, less than the national $4,151 per child average.

“Frankly in our state, we’re not serving the kids we need to serve,” said Diana Mendley Rauner, head of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. Neither she not the others could estimate how many more total preschool slots Illinois needs, nor how much it’ll cost the cash-strapped state.

“Can we afford not to?” Rauner wondered. “We know what a strong positive return these programs have.”

A shame for a state that’s already figured out how to educate small children, said Kris Perry of the First Five Years Fund. State leaders should look at early childhood education as an investment, rather than an entitlement or an expense.

“I think it’s important to try really hard to encourage a bipartisan look at it, and let the state not sell itself short of a new infusion for kids,” Perry said.

Because the investment pays off while children are still small, too, Gieseke said.

“The savings begin very soon in terms of some children not needing to go into special education services. The impact of reading by the end of third grade is a critical marker in the future,” she said. “There are earlier savings as well as long-term savings.”

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