Start Early thanks the Illinois General Assembly for approving a Fiscal Year 2025 state budget that includes significant increases in funding for early care and education programs, funding that aligns with Governor JB Pritzker’s multi-year Smart Start Illinois initiative. 

The final budget, approved by the legislature this week, contains nearly $250 million in new state funding for child care, preschool and home visiting services and the Early Intervention (EI) program. It also includes money to fund first-year operations for the newly-created Illinois Department of Early Childhood. 

Despite these needed and appreciated spending increases, Start Early is very disappointed with final appropriation levels of funding for the Early Intervention (EI) program and the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity (ECACE) scholarship program. In particular, Start Early had been fighting for a greater increase in EI funding, and we believe the approved budget is inadequate to address the ongoing workforce crisis and historic service delays. 

Illinois FY 2025 budget will benefit children and families by providing considerable funding to several key early learning programs, and we thank Governor JB Pritzker and the General Assembly for their ongoing commitment to children and families, Start Early Vice President of Illinois Policy Ireta Gasner said. We remain deeply concerned, however, that the legislature did not appropriate additional funds beyond the governor’s proposal for Early Intervention and ECACE scholarships. Timely services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays and a well-prepared and compensated workforce are cornerstones of an equitable early childhood system. This budget is a big step forward, but much more work is needed.”

Here are the specifics: 

  • $158.5 million (27.3%) increase for the child care system at Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) for Smart Start Workforce Grants, Quality Contracts, apprenticeships and Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) caseload growth 
  • $75 million (11.1%) increase for the Early Childhood Block Grant at Illinois State Board of Education for expansion of Prevention Initiative center-based and home visiting programs, Preschool for All and Preschool for All Expansion programs 
  • $6 million (3.8%) increase for the Early Intervention (EI) program at IDHS to accommodate caseload growth, but no additional funding for provider rate increases 
  • $5 million (21.8%) increase for evidence-based home visiting programs at IDHS to expand access to services and address compensation improvements 
  • $5 million for the ECACE scholarship program, but no additional funding to ensure candidates currently receiving the scholarship can finish their programs 
  • $14.2 million in operational funding for the new Illinois Department of Early Childhood 

Record levels of service delays continue to plague the EI system – delays linked to a shrinking workforce. Without annual rate increases, providers will continue to leave the program, meaning more infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays will wait for months to receive the life-changing services they are entitled to by law. 

In addition, nearly 2,500 current ECACE scholarship recipients will need further scholarship support to complete their degrees. The lack of early childhood educators has resulted in programs and classrooms closing – limiting the opportunity for families to locate effective services for their children. 

Several other important measures impacting the early care and education system – and the families and workforce who are a part of it – have been approved by the legislature this session, including: 

  • SB1 (Sen. Lightford, Rep. Canty) – authorizes the creation of the Department of Early Childhood 
  • HB4959 (Rep. Gabel, Sen. Sims) – the FY 2025 budget implementation bill, which, among other provisions, codifies into law the ECACE scholarship program 
  • HB4951 (Rep. Burke, Sen. Villanueva) – a revenue omnibus bill, which, among other provisions, establishes a permanent state Child Tax Credit for families eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit and have children under age 12 
  • HB5142 (Rep. Gabel, Sen. Collins) – requires, among other provisions, private health insurers to cover all pregnancy, postpartum and newborn care services provided by perinatal doulas or licensed certified professional midwives, including home births, home visits and support during labor. Insurance companies would need to cover home visits by board-certified lactation consultants, including the cost of recommended breast pumps, breastfeeding supplies and feeding aids. 
  • HB4491 (Rep. Faver Dias, Sen. Johnson) – allows a child care director or qualified early childhood educator to be present during the opening or closing of the child care program 
  • SB2675 (Sen. Villivalam, Rep. Croke) – expands eligibility to the Early Childhood Construction Grant (ECCG) program for not-for-profit early childhood providers that rent or lease from another not-for-profit entity

We expect the governor to sign and approve this final budget package and SB1 soon.

This suite of policy changes and funding increases was made possible by the commitment and diligent efforts of advocates across the state. Throughout the spring legislative session, parents, educators and advocates contacted state legislators thousands of times on behalf of Illinois families and those who serve them. Given there is more work ahead to address the critical gaps in funding for EI and ECACE, we and our advocacy partners look forward to working in the coming months to be sure both the administration and General Assembly understand the urgency of these problems. 

On Thursday, May 9, 2024, the Illinois House of Representatives approved Senate Bill 1 (SB1), legislation to authorize the creation of the Illinois Department of Early Childhood. An initiative of Governor JB Pritzker, the proposal, which passed the Illinois Senate last month, aims to improve access to critical early learning and care services by better aligning and coordinating programs, data and policies. SB1 is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford and State Representative Mary Beth Canty. We anticipate the Governor will sign the bill into law sometime this summer. 

“Start Early applauds the Illinois General Assembly for approving such consequential legislation,” Ireta Gasner, Vice President of Illinois Policy at Start Early said. “The state is now committed, more than ever, to transform state government so it can provide the range of services young children and families need to thrive. We thank Governor Pritzker, Deputy Governor Martin Torres, and their team for leading this work—work that’s only just begun.” 

Once enacted, the bill will require the new Department, starting in July of 2026, to administer the Child Care Assistance Program, the Early Intervention program, evidence-based home visiting programs, as well as infant, toddler and preschool programs currently funded by the State Board of Education. It will also license and monitor child care programs. 

“Passing this bill was a team effort, though every team has its stars,” said Jonathan Doster, Start Early’s Illinois Legislative Director. “Thank you to Leader Lightford and Representative Canty for their commitment to young children and their dogged leadership as we moved this significant proposal through the legislative process.” 

Start Early looks forward to sharing with state leaders our knowledge and expertise developed over years through our work providing high-quality early childhood programming and advancing child-focused policies in Illinois, particularly as decisions about the governance and design of our early learning and care system are being made. Together, as the governor often says, we will make Illinois the best state in the nation in which to raise young children. 

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released its next installation of Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) data, providing a snapshot of the skills young children had as they entered kindergarten in the 2022-2023 school year. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to implement the tool and collect the valuable information it provides, but the data the state gathered makes it plain that while COVID-19 disruptions have had an impact, we are heading back to pre-pandemic readiness levels.

As noted in the recent KIDS report, 30% of all students in Illinois demonstrate Kindergarten readiness in all three developmental areas (social and emotional development, language and literacy development, and math), a steady increase that puts the state slightly above pre-pandemic levels. Indeed, since the launch of KIDS in 2017-2018, and despite pandemic challenges, the percentage of students rated “Kindergarten ready” in all three developmental areas has increased by 6 percentage points, reflecting a positive upward trend over time.



While state-wide numbers reflect improvement over time, the percentage of students demonstrating Kindergarten readiness in all three domains varies widely across lines of income, language and learning style. Persistent early gaps between student groups underscore the need for targeted support both during the early years, and in the early primary grades – particularly for students identified as English Learners. Currently implementation challenges exist to assess and identify English Learners but this implementation issue is being addressed by the KIDS Advisory Committee.

Other researchers are beginning to investigate whether and how KIDS relates to later academic performance. A new report from the Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative (IWERC) concludes that KIDS scores are predictive of 3rd grade test scores in Math and English language arts (ELA). Yet, even with similar Kindergarten Readiness scores, Black and Latinx students are less likely to be proficient in 3rd grade math and ELA compared to White students.1

Some of these upward trends are encouraging, but persistent gaps require further work and study in the next few years. To address these gaps, assessment directors and school and district leaders should support administrators and teachers by reducing the amount of costly and redundant kindergarten readiness assessments, promoting the importance of a play-based environment in kindergarten, refering districts to KIDS coaches so they can acquire resources for implementing play-based learning, and ensuring there is an appropriate and full implementation of KIDS. It is too soon to draw any connections or conclusions, but we will note that these recent, modest increases coincide with the first year of Governor Pritzker’s Smart Start IL plan – a multi-year effort to increase funding for early childhood over a period of four years. The administration also plans to create a new Department of Early Childhood, which provides an opportunity for the state to create transformational changes that will benefit the early childhood workforce, young children and their families. This transformational work should be paired with sustainable investments and improved data collection, and we will all be watching to see if these coordinated efforts benefit our youngest learners. 

1Kiguel, S., Cashdollar, S., & Bates, S. (Forthcoming). Kindergarten readiness in Illinois: Trends and disparities in readiness using the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS). Chicago, IL: Illinois Workforce and Education Research Collaborative (IWERC), Discovery Partners Institute, University of Illinois.

Start Early is pleased to introduce our Chicago Policy Agenda for 2024-2027. Chicago is positioned to make great strides toward a higher-quality, more equitable early care and learning system over the next three years and this policy agenda outlines key levers for achieving that kind of systems change.

Awareness of Chicago’s early learning issues among City leadership will be one of those key levers. After advocates in Chicago successfully garnered attention for early learning issues during the 2023 elections, Mayor Johnson outlined goals for early learning in his administration’s transition plan and has since embraced and revived the Every Child Ready Chicago initiative, which was launched under the Lightfoot administration just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The recently elected City Council has also seemingly made a renewed commitment to issues impacting Chicago’s young children with the revival of the Education and Child Development Committee, which now holds regular meetings under the leadership of Alderwoman Jeannette Taylor.  

Leadership changes within Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have also resulted in continued commitments to early learning, including furthering the expansion of universal full-day pre-k for every four-year-old in Chicago. In addition to hiring a new CEO in 2021, CPS is facing an unprecedented expansion of their Board of Education over the next four years that will open opportunities to expand the Board’s expertise and further democratize the range of issues it considers.   

As CPS receives increased funds from the state’s Early Childhood Block Grant under Governor Pritzker’s Smart Start plan, their leadership will need to contend with how to build on the progress that has been made to expand access to pre-k and do so in such a way that preserves and promotes equity within the mixed delivery system of school- and community-based early childhood education that gives families in Chicago the ability to choose the program that works best for their child. Doing so will require partnership with Chicago’s six federal Head Start grant recipients and the broader early childhood provider community in Chicago. Our hope is that this Chicago Policy Agenda will provide guidance on where to focus efforts and resources as the city embarks on this collaborative work.

On April 16, Start Early along with our partners at Child Care For All, COFI, Illinois Action for Children, Latino Policy Forum, Raising Illinois, SEIU, and We, the Village brought nearly 300 advocates down to Springfield to advocate for Illinois’ youngest learners. Advocates shared their perspectives with legislators on the impact that the creation of the Department of Early Childhood and increased funding for ECACE & Early Intervention would have on our early childhood systems. In visits with legislators, advocates also shared Raising Illinois’ Babies Can’t Wait postcards highlighting the struggles & successes Illinois families have had with Early Intervention.

With just over one month left in this legislative session, we aren’t slowing down our advocacy efforts! Here’s how you can still participate:

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Start Early thanks Illinois Governor JB Pritzker for again demonstrating his continued commitment to young children and their families by proposing a Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) state budget that includes funding increases for preschool, child care, Early Intervention and evidence-based home visiting programs as part of his multi-year Smart Start Illinois initiative. These increases are urgently needed to serve more children, invest in the early childhood workforce, and strengthen quality in Illinois programs. We also applaud Governor Pritzker for addressing racial disparities in maternal health care and the administration’s proposal to establish a child tax credit focused on our youngest children.   

The governor also highlighted his signature legislative proposal for the spring session, the creation of the Department of Early Childhood (SB3777/HB5451). Establishing the new agency in law is an important step in our work to transform the state’s early childhood system so it works better for children, families and providers alike. 

That said, Start Early is very concerned about the funding level proposed for the Early Intervention (EI) program. Record levels of service delays continue to plague the program, delays linked inextricably to a shrinking workforce. Without annual rate increases, we know providers will continue to leave the program, meaning more infants and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays will wait for months to receive the life-changing services they are entitled to by law. 

“To build the early childhood system our youngest learners deserve, it’s our belief that Illinois must approve significant increases in state funding every year for the core programs and services that infants, toddlers and preschoolers need,” said Ireta Gasner, Start Early vice president of Illinois policy.  “We thank Governor Pritzker for his thoughtful budget approach and look forward to working with the Illinois General Assembly to enact a budget that funds Smart Start Illinois and doesn’t leave infants and toddlers with disabilities and delays behind.” 

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The FY25 budget proposal includes the following funding proposals:  

  • $75 million increase for preschool services and prenatal-to-age 3 programs (11.1% over FY 2024) to create 5,000 new preschool slots and expand the Prevention Initiative (PI) program 
  • $5 million increase for evidence-based home visiting programs (21.8% over FY 2024) to serve hundreds of additional families and to increase wages for the incumbent workforce 
  • $158.5 million increase for Smart Start Workforce Compensation Grants to replace expiring federal funds and for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to accommodate caseload growth (27.3% over FY 2024) 
  • $6 million increase for the Early Intervention program(3.8% over FY 2024) to accommodate expected caseload growth
    • Start Early and our advocate partners requested $40 million in new funding for the EI program. We strongly urge the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) to increase provider reimbursement rates and wages for service coordinators Service delays are largely caused by provider shortages, and rates of delay are higher now than last year. A significant percentage of providers have indicated they would leave the program if additional rate increases were not approved in FY25.  
  • $5 million in state funding for the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity (ECACE) initiative for scholarships to replace expiring federal funds 
    • Start Early and our advocate partners requested $60 million in new state funding for ECACE to continue the program in its current form. Increased compensation and access to higher education are foundational to addressing early childhood workforce challenges.  

The budget also includes $13.2 million to seed the creation of the Department of Early Childhood. We agree with the administration that, if done well, a consolidated early childhood state agency will improve the experiences for families and programs alike. We look forward to engaging with the administration in the work ahead. 

Start Early is also eager to work with the Illinois General Assembly to approve an FY25 budget this spring that includes, at a minimum, the funding proposals laid out today and provides more significant increases for Early Intervention and ECACE scholarships. 

Join Start Early in calling on our state legislature to prioritize our youngest learners today and during this new legislative session.Our babies can’t wait. 

The Illinois Policy Team at Start Early is pleased to release our annual Illinois Legislative Agenda, a snapshot of the budget requests and legislative priorities for which Start Early will be advocating during the spring 2024 legislative session in the state.

With the new legislative session underway, our team is focused on moving forward funding requests and legislation that will support families and providers across our early childhood system.

Our goals for the year include:

  • Growing and strengthening the state’s early care and education system through an FY25 budget that includes the funding levels outlined in Year Two of Governor Pritzker’s Smart Start Illinois proposal
  • Supporting legislation to create a new unified early childhood program
  • Expanding Child Care Assistance Program eligibility for child care teachers and staff who live at or below 300% of the Federal Poverty Level
  • Creating a state Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program

Expecting parents in nearly 60% of counties in Illinois live in maternity care deserts, and after bringing home a newborn, essential services can sometimes be even more difficult to access. Regardless of zip code or family income, when welcoming a new baby, all parents and families could benefit from additional encouragement and support. That is why Illinois is working to build the necessary public infrastructure and funding systems to scale Universal Newborn Support Systems (UNSS) that provide free, voluntary, short-term home visiting and referral services to every family in the state at the birth of a new baby, to make connections to the supportive services and resources they may need and want. 

While the ultimate goal of UNSS is to be universally available within every community, scaling UNSS programs is not likely to happen everywhere at once. Further, for a UNSS program to be successful, a community must already have resources available to which UNSS providers can refer parents. With this in mind, it becomes essential to understand where resources are available within the state, not only to determine where UNSS programs might be most effectively launched first, but also to pinpoint where additional resources and capacity-building work is needed. Our latest report, Universal Newborn Support Systems: A Review of Readiness, is a first step to understanding those questions. 

Using county-level data, this report examines areas of “risk”—particularly focused on birth-related and perinatal risk factors, which UNSS programs are designed to address—as well as community resources and services. Using simple statistical analysis, communities that deviate farthest from the mean are highlighted. This report is intended to serve as a way to start the conversation and begin to frame the question of where Illinois’ UNSS efforts should be focused. However, it is not without limitations and should not be used as a determining factor in these decisions.  

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Universal Newborn Support Systems: A Review of Readiness

A report exploring and mapping the availability of prenatal-to-three resources in Illinois

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While reading, there are several things to consider, which include: 

  • What metrics are most useful and relevant to this topic? While the authors of this report chose specific metrics that they viewed as relevant to UNSS, there are many other data points that were not or could not be included. Additional exploration to understand which resources are most essential for new families, and an analysis weighing these resources accordingly, could lead to greater insights on this topic.  

  • What data is missing? Separate from the first point is the issue of data that is unavailable. Some highly relevant data points—such as the maternal mortality rate—cannot be reliably disaggregated for communities with small populations without threatening the quality of the data, and there is little that can be done in such cases.  In other cases, relevant data simply does not exist, or does not exist in a high-quality and reliable format on community or even county levels. For example, maternal morbidity rates are higher than those for maternal mortality and therefore may have fewer challenges to reliability in smaller populations. The Illinois Maternal Health Task Force has significantly improved the state’s understanding of maternal morbidity and mortality in recent years, but finding community-level data is still difficult. Other data points, such as the distribution of midwives or doulas, are also lacking on a smaller scale. Data on infant and toddler programs and services is frequently less readily available than data relating to older children, and addressing this gap would serve not only to support this endeavor, but also to pave the way for future research and programs for the state’s youngest learners.  
  • What is the role of community leaders? Apart from improving data on a state-wide level, there is a significant portion of information that cannot be collected by the state, and must be shared by leaders within their communities. This information includes informal and/or temporary resources—such as educational programs, support groups, parenting classes, and other local services—that are essential to new parents and the success of UNSS programs, but which cannot be mapped on a statewide level. Collecting high-level data is not and cannot be a replacement for collaborating with leaders within communities. Furthermore, communities must be involved in conversations about scaling new resources and programs such as UNSS, as local engagement and partnership is essential to building sustainable services. 

This report is shared with the hope that it will serve as a catalyst for additional conversations, not just about UNSS within Illinois, but about the resources available to new and expecting families across the country. 

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On November 15, Mayor Brandon Johnson passed his first budget for the City of Chicago, naming it the “People’s Budget.” In many ways, this budget marks a huge success for the Mayor and represents many of his campaign promises to invest in people and support structures that have seen historical neglect. For example, the final budget contains resources and funding for public safety, including re-entry services for formerly incarcerated people, mental health and infrastructure, and one of the most topical investments was a $30 million allocation from state grants to the Department of Family Support Services (DFSS) to support newly arrived migrant families. Despite these investments, there are no direct increases to early childhood education.

Like past years, this budget season was filled with challenges, and most pressing was the fact that it is one of the last that will include support from the American Rescue Plan Act’s temporary investments. These COVID-era funds support a variety of city programs including vital prenatal-five services. As we approach this fiscal cliff, City-funded early childhood initiatives remain level-funded despite recommendations from 15 key early childhood stakeholders advocating for additional investments. The Chicago Early Learning Workforce Scholarship, the Chicago Early Childhood Integrated Data System (CECIDS), Family Connects Chicago and the Chicago Early Learning hotline did not receive an increase in funding heading into next year.

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And yet, the needs of Chicago’s early childhood system continue to grow. The workforce crisis continues to dampen the City’s ability to provide high-quality early childhood education to learners aged birth to five, with lack of pay parity between center-based and school-based teachers making recruitment and retention efforts that much more difficult. The Chicago Early Learning platform and community collaborations remain one of the key ways parents access information about programs and services available to their family. Family Connects Chicago consistently sees overwhelmingly positive results from utilizing evidence-based practice to support families with newborns in navigating City resources. We will continue our advocacy to see these resources appropriately funded, expanded and accessible to caregivers of young children in Chicago.

Despite the lack of additional investment in early childhood in this budget, Mayor Johnson has made his commitment to education and early childhood clear both through his campaign and in actions he has taken in office to-date. During the Early Childhood Town Hall hosted in September by Every Child Ready Chicago, Mayor Johnson declared that “early childhood is a priority for the Mayor’s Office.” We look forward to a long and fruitful partnership with the Johnson administration to continue building on previous efforts to increase access to and quality of early childhood programs and services in Chicago. Start Early remains steadfast that our earliest learners, from birth to age five, should remain one of the City’s policy priorities for strategic increased investment.

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Each year the Illinois General Assembly passes legislation that can have an impact on families, or the organizations in our communities providing early childhood or related supportive services to families. Start Early leads on some of these legislative changes, often in coalition with others, and in other cases we contribute our early childhood lens and expertise to support the efforts of another lead organization. The 2023 Legislative Summary provides a listing of those bills that became law in the spring 2023 session that we thought would be relevant to families with young children and the field.  We hope that this is a resource you will download and share with colleagues and families alike. We are happy to provide additional information about any of these initiatives or connect you with other advocates where needed. Initiatives that were led by Start Early are marked *.