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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.  

Read the Full Report

Universal Newborn Support Systems: A Review of Readiness

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

Learn More

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 *. 

Enrollment and retention data have long suggested the home visiting field could do more to meet the needs and desires of families, and workforce data point to challenges finding and sustaining a highly-qualified workforce. Start Early’s Illinois Home Visiting Caregiver and Provider Feedback Project used an organic, mixed-methods approach to understand what families and providers see as needed improvements to the home visiting system, and from this input, created precise recommendations.

The findings of this multi-year project carry significance for programs, model developers, researchers, systems leaders and policy makers. By actively engaging with the recommendations, leaders at all levels can ensure that resources are optimally allocated and can drive transformative change, paving the way for a more responsive, equitable and effective system that uplifts families and nurtures the healthy development of young children.

We encourage members of the home visiting field – including funders, model developers, researchers, program leaders, home visitors, and family participants – to read this report and identify the levers for change that they can act upon to strengthen and improve how the home visiting system supports caregivers and providers.

For questions about this report, please reach out to alowefotos@startearly.org.

Key Recommendations

National Models

  • Create curriculum, program materials, and use language that is more inclusive and representative of all caregivers, including gender non-conforming or non-binary caregivers, male caregivers, and caregivers who are not parents.
  • Embed and allow for more individualization in service delivery to meet families’ needs; prioritize new and strengths-based measure of the quality and effectiveness of programs, such as parental efficacy and length of retention.
  • Reduce educational requirements and create additional flexibilities for programs to hire individuals without a Bachelor’s degree, including developing guidance for how to hire former parent participants, in order to address vacancies and to reflect competency-based skills.


Federal Agencies & Funders of Home Visiting

  • Coordinate federal funding streams and offer states added guidance on braiding across different sources (e.g. Head Start/Early Head Start, Title IV-E, TANF, Medicaid, etc.) for more efficient state home visiting systems. The Office of Head Start and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) should coordinate on allocation of funding, funding timelines and program requirements to ensure that state systems are able to plan around the braiding of these funding streams.


Illinois Agencies & Funders of Home Visiting

  • Identify opportunities to extend and individualize services to engage a broad array of family needs and desires, including creating cross-model guidance on enhancements and modifications for priority populations.
  • Align funding mechanisms and administrative requirements to alleviate the burden on programs, including streamlining data collection, compensation, monitoring and other requirements.
  • Increase supports for programs surrounding workforce recruitment and retention, including implementing cross-funder compensation targets, hiring supports including sample job descriptions, pay differentials for bilingual staff.
  • Increase access to supports including infant and early childhood mental health consultation.

The Start Early Illinois Policy team is pleased to release our newest multi-year policy agenda, guiding our work for the next four fiscal years (FY24-27) and building on the work of our recently-concluded inaugural agenda.

The FY24-27 Policy Agenda incorporates the many advances in the field over the past four years, including Governor Pritzker’s exciting multi-year Smart Start initiative, and encompasses our priorities – both within and alongside Smart Start. Our work will also both inform and be shaped by the governor’s recent announcement of the creation of a standalone early childhood agency. The agenda continues to be anchored in community and provider voices, and is organized into four foundational components:

  1. A stronger, more cohesive infrastructure for early childhood services where families can find the services that work for their children, where providers can easily access supports like I/ECMHC and strategies for inclusion of children with disabilities, and where quality, transparent data guides decision-making.
  2. Well-designed and administered early childhood programs where programs have the resources they need to meet the diverse needs of young children and their families.
  3. A thriving representative workforce with stronger pathways to earning needed credentials, receive the compensation and benefits that reflect the importance and complexity of their work and who receive ongoing professional learning opportunities.
  4. Improved access to health and mental health care, economic supports and healthy communities, which we know are basic necessities all children deserve and need to thrive, particularly in the prenatal to kindergarten entry period of life.

We look forward to work that not only drives us toward this vision but is rooted in the current challenges we know families and early childhood providers and programs face on a daily basis. The challenges the field faces are significant and urgent, and while recent investments have been incredibly helpful, our progress is tenuous. We can be successful only when we work in partnership with families and providers, our advocacy partners, our public partners in city and state government and the tremendous philanthropic community in Illinois. We look forward to tackling these challenges with all of our partners to make Illinois the best state in the nation to raise a child.

With the close of Fiscal Year 2023, Start Early’s Illinois Policy team ended our inaugural, multi-year policy agenda. In launching that agenda, we wanted to try to capture the breadth of the work we do with our state and local elected officials and agencies to continuously strengthen and improve our early childhood programs, strengthen the early childhood workforce and to improve access to economic and health supports that we know are so critical for children and families to thrive. That agenda launched in the early months of not only a new governor’s term, but also a global pandemic.

Despite the strange mix of both hopefulness and uncertainty of that year, our team was focused on the kinds of change and progress we wanted to see for our state’s children and families – both now and in the years to come. Over those years, thanks to the leadership of Governor Pritzker and the members of the Illinois General Assembly, along with the tenacious advocacy of the early childhood community, we’ve seen:

  • Increased investments in early childhood programs* lifting our state commitment from just over $1 billion in FY21 to more than $1.5 billion in FY24.
  • A blueprint to re-imagine the early childhood system to ensure that families can find the services they want and need, and that those supports are available equitably across Illinois.
  • Use of federal COVID-relief funding to not only to respond to the unique needs of the pandemic, but also to lay the groundwork for changes toward the state’s long-term vision.
  • Increased attention towards better supporting the early childhood workforce for the critical work they do.
  • Efforts to ensure that our programs are able to enroll and serve families who too often face systemic barriers to participation – such as children with delays or disabilities, who are experiencing homelessness or who might come from a home where languages other than English are the primary.

Despite all of that progress, there is much work to do. We need to continue toward this new vision of our system, but recognize how many serious challenges are being experienced daily in early childhood programs – particularly to attract and retain folks into the early childhood workforce. The child care business model was already fraught before the pandemic. There is a great need for stronger federal partnership and funding to help states advance their early learning goals.

Our team was proud to lead and significantly contribute to so many advances over the past few years – and in our new multi-year agenda will lay out some of the key priorities of work yet to be done. We have a short window in the first five years to help children launch into school and life with the strongest foundation possible – opportunities are in front of us and we owe it to our youngest learners to do what we know needs to be done.

* Early Childhood Block Grant, Home Visiting, Early Intervention and the Child Care Assistance Program and the Early Childhood Construction Grant

Earlier today, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker announced the creation of a new, unified state agency focused on early childhood. This major undertaking, which will take place over several years, aims to simplify and streamline how families access critical early learning and care services – by better aligning and coordinating programs, data and policies.

Across the country, families with young children and those who care for them continue to navigate a complex, fragmented and under-resourced early care and learning system, making it challenging to meet the diverse needs of communities.

Illinois leaders and stakeholders have called for an early childhood agency that can more efficiently and equitably manage the range of services that young children and families need to thrive, and we are prepared and ready to design and implement this new governance structure with success.

For decades, Illinois has been a leader in prioritizing policies and investments that put children and families first and has built a robust early childhood system through deep public and private engagement, helping to ensure services reflect what families and providers need and value. This long history gives the current administration lessons to build upon and partnerships to harness as this new agency is designed and launched.

Start Early is excited to offer its longstanding experiences directly providing early childhood services and informing policy in Illinois as state leaders embark on this historic transformation of the governance and design of our early learning and care system.

“Today, the governor presented a unique, historic pledge to redesign and transform how we serve Illinois families with young children,” Start Early Vice President of Illinois Policy Ireta Gasner shares. “Start Early is eager to be a collaborator in this work. We know that we will have greater success when we bring the voices of the early childhood community alongside our government partners in this effort.”

As the backbone organization of Raising Illinois, a statewide public-private coalition of more than 1,400 parents, providers, advocates and policymakers working to achieve a better future for Illinois’ infants and toddlers, we have seen the power of what Illinoisans can contribute in driving transformational change. It will take the experiences of those on-the-ground in communities across the state for such a notable, positive and sustainable change to be made to our state’s early childhood infrastructure.

While the transition team works to establish the new agency, it remains critical for us to stay committed to the multi-year investments and program improvements outlined in the governor’s Smart Start plan. We must approve and implement substantial annual investments in all early childhood program to address early childhood workforce shortages and waiting lists for services, and to expand services to where families face disparities in accessing programs they need to work and for their children to thrive.

“The first five years of a child’s life are the most important for positive health and development, and our youngest Illinoisans are growing and learning right now,” Start Early President Diana Rauner states. “So, as we look toward this brighter future for how we serve Illinois families, Start Early remains steadfast in its efforts to reach more families with quality early learning experiences through transformational policies, investments and research.”

Next week, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) is holding the first two of its three fall budget hearings, the first step in determining next year’s proposed education budget for the state. These hearings provide the early childhood advocacy community an opportunity to help shape the state’s Fiscal Year 2025 budget proposal. Please consider participating *virtually or in-person * in requesting a $75 million increase in state funding for the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG) and to continue and grow the $5 million investment to improve inclusion supports for children with disabilities and developmental delays.

Here’s how you can participate in the ISBE budget hearing process:

  1. Visit ISBE.net/BudgetRequestForm, and enter your name and contact information.
  2. Choose the hearing you’ll attend or select the option for submitting a written testimony. Written requests must be received by ISBE no later than Oct. 31.
  3. Under the “Add Program Request” drop-down menu select “Early Childhood Education”
  4. Enter $75,000,000.00 under the “Additional Requested Funding” section.
  5. Under the field that begins with “Please provide the Board with a description of your funding request,” you will need to put further detail on the $75 million ask.

Upcoming Budget Hearings:

  • Oct. 3, 4-7 p.m. CT (In-person in Springfield)
    Must submit a written funding request online by Sept. 28
  • Oct. 5, 4-7 p.m. CT (Virtual)
    Registration deadline is Oct. 2 at 11:59 p.m.
  • Oct. 30, 1-4 p.m. CT (Virtual)
    Registration deadline is Oct. 25 at 11:59 p.m.

General Tips to Testify at ISBE’s Fiscal Year 2025 Budget Hearings:

  • Use your time wisely as oral testimony is being limited to three (3) minutes per person.
  • Be sure to personalize your testimony with your own perspective.
  • Compose your testimony with an introduction, early childhood needs, the $75 million ask and conclusion.
  • Use your own words as much as possible, for variety and authenticity.

Contact us if you plan to testify or have questions. Thank you for speaking up for children and families across the state!

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