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