Accelify Blog

Early Education Program May Face Big Cuts

April 16, 2010

In just over a year, 4-year-old Lilia Fisher went from being a shy preschooler who wouldn’t walk into class to a self-assured girl who climbs the playground equipment.

Her mom, Tina Peano, attributes the transformation to the teachers at Frederick Stock School in Edison Park, where the preschool known for special education faces drastic cuts if the legislature adopts Gov. Pat Quinn‘s proposed 2011 budget. Lilia is one of six students with special needs in her class of 20.

The governor’s proposal would slash the state’s early childhood education block grant by 16 percent, which means 6,000 students in Chicago public schools could be shut out of the Preschool for All program, which targets academically at-risk children. Though not mandatory, Preschool for All is hailed for giving 3- and 4-year-olds a jump-start with its 2 1/2 hours a day of free instruction.

Half of the city’s 244 Preschool for All programs would be affected in some way, and 200 teachers and 200 teacher assistants might be let go if the legislature does not restore funding, said Diana Ferguson, chief financial officer for Chicago Public Schools.

"Don’t close a program that is a model," said Peano, herself a Chicago public schools teacher. "Make more programs like it. If programs like this don’t exist for the kids who are the most vulnerable, then (Chicago Public Schools) isn’t doing its job."

The state grant, which funds Preschool for All and three other programs, was cut 10 percent for the current school year, but Chicago Public Schools made up the $14 million shortfall with federal stimulus dollars.

School officials said they might not to be able to fill in the larger gap for next year as they contemplate cuts across the system — from increasing class size and eliminating non-varsity sports to reducing gifted and magnet programs.

The district is $1 billion over budget for next year and the state faces a $13 billion deficit.

Parents, educators and advocates worry that Preschool for All will be caught in the squeeze.

"It’s called Preschool for All. Let’s live up to the name," said John Price, principal at Audubon Elementary School in Roscoe Village. "That’s the ideal."

In late March, Price heard from school officials that Audubon likely could not offer the free preschool program, which has 60 preschoolers and more th an double that on a wait list. To try to retain the program, Price has floated the idea of a yearly tuition of about $4,000, but he has already heard the expense will be difficult for some families.

Quinn’s budget proposal would allocate almost $288 million for early childhood education across the state. About 37 percent of the money goes to Chicago schools. Officials say they need $126 million to avoid cuts. The proposed 16 percent decrease would leave the district about $20 million short.

Reduced funding means the district would offer Preschool for All only at schools where at least 93 percent of families meet federal poverty guidelines. Those would be the most at-risk children, and the state money would run out after those are paid for, Ferguson said.

Lobbying against the cuts is fierce, with Ann McNally, principal at Frederick Stock, saying she’s getting a steady stream of phone calls and visits from parents who want to fight back.

"My primary concern is for our children with disabilities in the blended program," McNally said, referring to classes shared by those who are disabled and those who are not. "Those children definitely need this education, and we’ve got to find places that can educate them close to their neighborhoods."

School officials said students with disabilities would be bused if their education plan mandates a blended classroom. But busing isn’t a palatable alternative, parents say.

"A lot of times, these are kids that don’t transition well," said Kerry Esselman, whose son Patrick attends preschool at the Barbara Vick Early Childhood and Family Center in Beverly Hills/Morgan Park. "To put a child that small on a bus and have them go to a n eighborhood they’re not familiar with does not make sense when we have this wonderful program in our own backyard."

Esselman, also the chairwoman of the Local School Council, is sending a petition with 3,600 signatures to legislators in Springfield and school officials in Chicago to try to save the program at Barbara Vick, which is known for educating children with autism.

"We don’t want to just sit still and hope that it will be taken care of," she said. "We’re going to do everything we can."

In contrast to the governor’s budget, the state Board of Education recommended a 10 percent bump to early childhood education programs. That would restore funding to earlier levels of about $381 million statewide.

"This would enable all those programs across the state to be whole again — at least at the point they were in 2009 — and to bring back some of what we lost during this fiscal year," said Kay Henderson, the board’s early childhood division administrator.

For parents and educators, that’s the right answer, but it’s in the hands of lawmakers.

"Early education is essential to children," McNally said. "There’s no middle ground. I can’t even think of what a compromise would be."