More Pritzker Preschool Funding Details

Halbrook Commentary on Early Childhood and Daycare Spending in Illinois

Dated: 3/23/24

Policymakers looking to end systemic problems such as crime, poverty, and joblessness have over the years focused on getting children off to a good start by investing in early childhood education (ECE). New information, however, says that all those taxpayer-funded ECE programs may have done more harm than good.

Max Eden, writing in Real Clear Education, highlighted a new study reviewed by Education Week that indicates “evaluations of recent preschool programs produce puzzling findings, including negative impacts, and divergent, weaker results than demonstration programs implemented in the 1960s and 70s.” (emphasis added)

Eden’s article and the Annenberg Brown University study both highlight the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian study from the 1960’s and 70s that were narrow tests of preschool effectiveness. Based largely on the positive results from these two tests, the expansion of HeadStart and other ECE programs took off.

It is important to understand those two early studies and Eden wrote a great summary as follows:

“The Perry Preschool Project served fifty-eight black students classified by researchers as “functionally retarded,” and relied heavily on home visits to teach parents how to better teach their children. The Abecedarian study served fifty-seven deeply disadvantaged, mostly black children, starting from birth, for five years in a single care center and a total cost of about $85,000 per pupil. Both showed striking positive results. Therefore, pre-K advocates argued, sending kids to public school one year sooner would also yield striking positive results.”

For decades, these two studies have been the impetus for spending billions of dollars on ECE and making these programs untouchable.

Ounce of Prevention, a non-profit funded by tax dollars and donors for early childhood programs is an non-profit that advocates for ECE. They recently renamed as Early Start. The organization promotes the Perry Project on their website as qualified research. Old studies die hard.

 Six decades after the Perry Preschool Project, the effectiveness of ECE is in question and state legislators should take note, especially this year.

Before I detail the costs, it is important that policymakers understand if these programs are even effective. The Annenberg- Brown University study from December 2023 titled Why are Preschool Programs Becoming Less Effective? looked into that very question and noted that:

“The combination of redundant instruction and harsh interactions with teachers may cause children to disengage from learning, perhaps setting them on less positive academic trajectories during the early school years. The pattern of findings observed in Tennessee and Georgia with test score impacts flipping from mostly positive to mostly negative, is consistent with the possibility that positive impacts on learning basic skills can be offset by negative impacts on other skills, such as behavioral or emotional outcomes.”

“It’s unlikely that any amount of evidence would persuade the education establishment that pre-K programs harm students. But it is progress, nonetheless, to see researchers and journalists admit that the evidence doesn’t prove that it’s a panacea.”

This study should concern everyone in Illinois especially considering the Governor wants to spend big for universal preschool in the state.

In this year’s budget address, Gov. Pritzker proudly stated, “ right now we have over 82,000 publicly-funded preschool classroom seats—the highest number in our state’s history. Staying on the Smart Start plan, we will achieve universal preschool by 2027.”

 He called to “increase Smart Start funding by $150 million in year two to create 5,000 more preschool seats, continue growing childcare, and reach thousands more families with critical early childhood services.”

 He also wants a new agency called the Department of Early Childhood.

Let’s face it 150 million for 5,000 more preschool students doesn’t sound like much.  Except if you do the math, that works out to $30,000 per student – for preschool.

But, no one looks at the numbers or does the math.

I asked for the numbers and this is what I found. In Illinois, we already spend an astronomical amount of money on ECE, early intervention and daycare. The numbers and programs all run together. When I asked for numbers just on preschool, I got numbers that included day care, early intervention, construction grants for early childhood programs, and programs that are a combination of all of these services.

It is difficult to separate the programs as often times children go from preschool to afterschool care in the same facility or preschool is actually not  just for two-three hours, two -three days a week, but instead it is five days a week for six hours a day – which is really daycare.

The numbers are astounding. Illinois’ current budget will spend an astounding $4.4 Billion on a mixture of early childhood education and childcare assistance – and quite possible that’s an understatement. Again, the programs are mixed and no one can give even elected officials clear numbers. Of that amount just over $3 billion comes from federal funds and that is mostly for childcare assistance.  The Illinois State Board of Education has a line-item expenditure for ECE of $673,138,100. But there are another dozen or more grant lines for nearly the same amount, $621,734,488, also dedicated to ECE.

Even murkier are how many children are served by the $4.4 billion in tax dollars.  In terms of childcare the Illinois Annual Child Care Report from FY22 shows either 158,607 children were served or 102,884 children as indicated in their chart broken out by age. They have the total dollar amount spent on childcare that year of $1,033,009,222. If we assume two-thirds of the money was spent on those aged 0-5 years old, the cost per child is $11,297.

As far as preschool programs, the number of children enrolled in state funded preschools is also difficult to discern. Some programs are funded by a combination of state funds, local school districts and park districts, donors and parents. However, we know in nearly every case the taxpayer-funded programs are the most expensive ones. 

Governor Pritzker’s budget address, though, did help clear up some of the numbers.

He mentioned that 82,000 students receive early childhood education and 166,000 receive childcare assistance.

Looking at just the ECE amount in the current budget of $907,638,100 spread across 82,000 students, the state is spending $11,609 per student.

This number does not include over $165 million for construction grants. And we should question the $1 million going to Wesley Child Care Center in Glenview, one of Illinois’ wealthier communities for their building improvements.

Childcare is even more expensive, again using just numbers identified for childcare, the current budget shows spending of $ 3,000,021,400 – $3 billion from federal funds spread out over 166,000 according to Gov. Pritzker and that is a spend of $18,072 per child.

The question is what are the results for all this spending and the answer is not much. Just look at our school report cards.