• Ben Szalinski
    MAR 14, 2024


    Legislators moving forward on establishing governor’s proposed early childhood department

    Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester) speaks at a news conference in Springfield earlier this month. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line]

    The Senate Executive Committee advanced a bill to create one of Gov. JB Pritzker’s major second term initiatives and establish the Department of Early Childhood.  

    The plan, outlined in SB1 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester), would establish the department that would exclusively focus on early childhood issues, which has been a major focus of Pritzker in his philanthropic life and six years as governor, particularly during his second term. Services related to early childhood education and other areas currently housed in the State Board of Education (ISBE), Department of Human Services (DHS) and Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) would be combined under the new umbrella. 

    The committee voted unanimously to send the bill for a floor vote.  

    The department will “make our system more equitable, make it easier for parents and providers to navigate and to support the stand in efforts to eliminate service deserts,” Lightford said.   

    Pritzker signed an executive order last October to begin the process of creating the new state agency. Ann Whalen, formerly the policy director for Advance Illinois, is leading the transition.   

    The plan to consolidate the various services throughout state government comes from a report by the Early Childhood Funding Commission, which recommended consolidating early childhood programs under one agency to provide better services and outcomes. Pritzker’s executive order also established an advisory committee to help establish the department.   

    “Part of what we’re trying to do is make this ecosystem easier for parents [and] simpler for providers,” Whalen said.   

    The program wouldn’t be fully established until July 1, 2026. The first step, and the goal of SB1, is to create the framework of the new department and get it running at a basic level beginning July 1, 2024 and then spend the next two years creating policy and the department’s functions. In 2026, the programs currently housed under other agencies would be transitioned over to the Department of Early Childhood.   

    Among the functions that would be transferred from other state agencies are Early Childhood Block Grants at ISBE; the Child Care Assistance Program, Home-Visiting and Early Intervention services at DHS; and daycare licensing currently regulated by DCFS.   

    “Currently providers like the Carole Robertson Center must navigate regulations of multiple state agencies to deliver programs,” Carole Robertson Center for Learning President Bella Mote said. “This leads to inefficiencies and lost hours.”  

    The bill is facing some opposition, however, from labor groups. Representatives of AFSCME Council 31, which represents employees at many state agencies, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which represents ISBE employees, said they are concerned that the bill lacks language protecting state employees as their jobs could be subject to a transition and new employer. They said the early framework doesn’t make it clear which positions will be affected by creating a new department and relocating services.  

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