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State lawmakers call for more funding for early childhood education, improved literacy

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Illinois state lawmakers continued their discussion on improving childhood education for Black and brown families Thursday afternoon. Their main focus was on improving inclusive environments and working toward a compulsory school age.

Agencies noted COVID-19 created a significant challenge for early childhood providers. For now, lawmakers are trying to find solutions to issues that started well before the pandemic.

The Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development (GOECD) says early childhood education can only improve by applying a racial equity and social justice platform. However, the office lacks data breaking down programs by community, race, and income.

"I just find it difficult to understand how if you're the lead from the governor's office and you've been in existence for 10 years, how is it that you can perform a task without having data to know what's next," asked Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood).

GOECD Workforce Policy Director Bethany Patten says Gov. JB Pritzker quickly realized there were issues with early childhood grants not going to many communities.

"He recognizes that an equitable funding model is really the necessary plumbing structure as it were, to use a metaphor, to ensure that Illinois' public early childhood services can make it to communities and providers and families that need the most," Patten explained.

Improving literacy

Several lawmakers feel Black people have a higher need for funding in early childhood education. They emphasized it is extremely important when it comes to improving literacy and building inclusive environments.

"Let's look at it this way: You've got a person going to the emergency room for the flu versus a person going to the emergency room for a gunshot. The gunshot is going to require more money than the flu," Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago) said. "Black people have gunshots in education."

The Legislative Black Caucus is looking for specific solutions that can economically impact Black academic success as the state currently struggles to meet that goal. In fact, some are looking far back in history to see where things went wrong.

According to research from the University of Illinois, 98% of the country's Black population was illiterate in 1860. But Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) found the gap had closed by 1960, with only 48% considered illiterate.

"Somebody did something right in that 100 years that we have, with all the technology, research, and education, failed in the current moment," Ammons said.

Because of this, she feels lawmakers need to create a better definition of equity in education. Ammons also hopes the state's early childhood funding commission will look at the economic disparities across the state. The commission is set to release a report that could address these issues in January.

Compulsory age: Five years old

Researchers from the Illinois State Board of Education argue optional Kindergarten enrollment results in a lack of equitable education. As a result, they're pushing Kindergarten for All.

"We firmly believe that lowering the compulsory school age to five will ensure that all children have a better opportunity to receive a strong foundation of literacy and reading skills that will set them up for success in all aspects of their lives," said Dr. Brenda Dixon, ISBE Research and Evaluation Officer.

Dixon also explained there is no conclusive evidence supporting the effectiveness of third-grade retention as an academic or social-emotional intervention. She added many studies have found mandatory retention increases the risk of dropout.

ISBE is also working on new teacher preparation programs to help achieve stronger racial and ethnic representation.

"Statewide, 52% of public school children are students of color, while only 17% of their teachers reflect their racial and ethnic diversity," said Jennifer Kirmes, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning. "These standards and our implementation of them will help ensure that all students are learning from educators who understand the various cultures, potential language barriers, and other important qualities that our children bring with them to their education."

The committee also heard from the Illinois Head Start Association and several early childhood education advocate groups. Their ideas could be included in proposals lawmakers will debate in less than two months during veto session.

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Mike Miletich

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