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Early education urged for state

Published: Friday, Feb. 15, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

DeKALB – Weeks before Gov. Pat Quinn is set to announce his state budget plan, a children’s advocacy group is calling for a greater investment in early childhood education and child care services.

Voices for Illinois Children released its 2013 Illinois Kids Count report Thursday, chronicling the decline in attendance at state-supported preschools and an increased financial burden to families seeking child care because of cuts in state funding.

The report showed that about 20,000 fewer children are attending state-supported preschool programs statewide while eligibility requirements for the Child Care Assistance Program have become more restrictive, moving the qualifying family income threshold from 200 percent of the poverty line to 185 percent. That’s the difference between $47,110 or $43,500 for a family of four.

Nancy Teboda, executive director of the Children’s Learning Center in DeKalb, said the changes have hurt local families. When the income requirements became more restrictive, Teboda said the center lost 12 families because their co-pay would have quadrupled.

“We’ve had families who have cut their hours at work to remain eligible so they can still have child care while they work and go to school,” Teboda said. “They’re making the same amount of money but their co-pay goes way up. We’re talking about families who really need the state subsidy program. They’re working the best jobs they can find and trying to get a college education.”

As the state makes cuts to early childhood education and services, more children are growing up in poverty. According to Voices for Illinois Children, the child poverty rate in DeKalb County has increased from 9.9 percent in 2006-07 to 14.9 percent by 2009-10.

Teboda said the trend is easy to see at the Children’s Learning Center, where the number of families needing the government subsidy has increased from about 53 percent before the economic slump to 74 percent.

With the state struggling to fund daycare centers, many have turned to organizations such as Community Coordinated Child Care (4-C) and the DeKalb County Community Foundation for financial help.

Anita Zurbrugg, program director with the foundation, said there is a strong partnership with 4-C and about a quarter of all grants go toward education. She said reports such as Illinois Kids Count help the foundation target areas that need assistance and expects an increased focus on some early education programs with President Barack Obama’s recent call for greater access to preschool for families.

“Going forward, the foundation has already identified an interest in proactively ramping up services in kindergarten readiness programs for children,” Zurbrugg said.

Despite the gloomy report, state Rep. Robert Pritchard said it is hard to foresee additional money being available for any programs.

The Hinckley Republican said early education is one of the best investments the state can make, but enormous pension and Medicaid bills have left little money for needed services in the past years. Pritchard said legislators would continue to build the budget line-by-line and fund programs that produce the best outcomes, but no influx of cash should be expected.

“If we don’t get some major pension reform, you’re not going to see any more money going into education,” he said. “You could see less money.”

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