Pre-K 'chaos'

Dozens of schools scramble for preschool funding after grants denied by state Board of Ed

 Students learn to play musical instruments in a preschool class. (Shutterstock)

Students learn to play musical instruments in a preschool class. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

Dozens of schools across Illinois are facing the loss of state funding for their preschool programs in a process critics say "leaves us in chaos."

Jonesboro and Cobden elementary schools in southern Illinois were among dozens to have their funding abruptly suspended through state Early Childhood Block Grants this spring. That's left them scrambling to maintain their preschool programs in the fall.

State Rep. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro told The Southern Illinoisan the funding process was "suspect" as administered by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Jonesboro District Supt. Keith Reinhardt said the school scored a 58 in the ISBE system, with a 60 needed to sustain state funding for preschool program. He complained about the capricious nature of "needy points" awarded to some schools, but not Jonesboro, even though 57 percent of its student body comes from low-income families.

The competitive grants are also open to private and charter schools.

According to ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews, this "was the first statewide open competition for the Early Childhood Block Grant in a number of years. The process provided funding for 5,000 additional children. However, due to the large number of applicants, the appropriation could not fully meet the need statewide, and not all qualified programs received funding."

Matthews added, "We are working on a development on that issue," and late Thursday she announced that the Governor's Office of Early Childhood Development and the Department of Human Services were joining to provide additional money to "fund programs that met standards (scored 60 or above) and did not initially receive funding ... due to the limited funds in the state board’s appropriation."

Matthews re-emphasized on Friday that the process had used an Early Childhood Asset Map that showed other local resources in a district as well as overall poverty levels in the area.

"The purpose of these grants is to serve the highest number of children with the greatest need," she said. "This wasn't by any means an arbitrary process." Matthews called the state system "consistent and as fair as possible."

Jonesboro has suspended its almost 30-year-old preschool program pending an appeal with the state that might not be determined before school starts at the end of August. "It leaves us in chaos," Reinhardt told WSIL-TV.

Matthews said Friday that Jonesboro, with its score of 58, would not have its state funding renewed with the additional funding announced Thursday, although its formal appeal to the state education board is still pending.

The state's own "Preschool for All" law is supposed to give priority to low-income students and those otherwise at risk of academic failure.

But causing chaos in social-safety-net programs to discourage their use has been a consistent tactic of Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration. Shifts in eligibility requirements in the Child Care Assistance Program have led to lowered enrollment in the agency providing funding for day care.

Social-service groups pointed out that preschool enrollment fell 20,000 from 2009 to 2015 to 75,000 statewide, a level not seen for a decade, and that was before the additional chaos brought on by the first two years of Rauner's term conducted without a state budget.

According to data provided by Matthews, Jonesboro lost $129,000 in funding and Cobden $123,000. Other six-figure losses were sustained by Fairmont in Will County, Signal Hill, Grant, Central, and Shiloh in St. Clair County, Rogys Gingerbread House, Catholic Charities of Peoria, and Peoria Roe in Peoria County, Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico and Riverbend in Whiteside County, Meridian in Ogle County, McHenry in McHenry County, Riverbend Head Start in Madison County, Bunker Hill in Macoupin County, Northshore, Fremont, Highland Park Community Nursery School, CCSD 46, and Mundelein in Lake County, Monmouth-Roseville in Warren County, St. Anne and Manteno in Kankakee County, Milford in Iroquois County, Cambridge Lakes Preschool in Kane County, Unity Point in Jackson County, Geneseo in Henry County, Lewistown in Fulton County, Minooka in Grundy County, Yellow Brick Road, Small World, and John Logan College in Williamson County, Kids Country in Franklin County, Norris City-Omaha-Enfield in White County, Pope in Pope County, Edwards in Edwards County, Marquardt and CCSD 180 in DuPage County, Olympia in McLean County, Hiawatha in DeKalb County, Odin in Merion County, Lawrence in Lawrence County, South Holland, Worth, Oak Lawn, Berkeley, and Open Door in Cook County, Winnebago in Winnebago County, North Boone in Boone County, Edinburg in Christian County, and Griggsville-Perry in Pike County, while Waukegan sustained a $3.6 million loss and East St. Louis a $1.75 million cut.