Last week, the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition held a day-long retreat where over 40 literacy advocates came together. With a wide range of life experiences, from regions across Illinois, we learned from each other and broadened our perspectives. Speaking for myself, I emerged feeling super energized to continue advocating for improved literacy instruction in Illinois…and, also, a little overwhelmed by the depth of the problem and the complexity of potential solutions.

One thing is clear: with a third of Illinois’ 4th graders reading below “basic” on the Nation’s Report Card, we have major work to do. Every student – no matter their background or zip code – deserves equitable access to evidence-based literacy instruction that meets their needs. Other states have gotten serious about literacy and adopted comprehensive plans to improve outcomes, with varying degrees of success. Illinois’ time to get serious about literacy is NOW.

If you want to be a part of the solution, add your name to the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. We welcome people from all walks of life, who live up and down Illinois, who work in schools or not, who struggled to read or excelled, who speak one language or many, whose kids started reading before preschool or needed years of tutoring. There is a place in this coalition for every Illinoisan who is committed to advocating for equitable reading outcomes. Join us.

P.S. – I wrote this blog post a few weeks ago that summarizes my experience as I began digging into reading policy. If this is new to you, you might find it interesting. Or helpful. Or controversial. Either way, let me know if you have feedback.

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Me too. Let me walk you through my journey to better understand this complicated topic, featuring a heavy dose of honesty, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and a debt of gratitude to the many kind souls I’ve met along the ride who pour their hearts into literacy work every day.

This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

Early in my professional life, when I was a legislative staffer diving into lots of topics that were new to me, I remember having a revelation that the more I learned about a subject, the more I realized how much I still didn’t know. Over a decade later, I discovered that this phenomenon has a name: the Dunning-Kruger Effect! My journey to learn about literacy instruction is following this trajectory, from knowing nothing to progressing along the “slope of enlightenment.”

But let’s go back in time about two years. Lots of states have undertaken literacy policy work, but Illinois hasn’t made any big, splashy literacy reforms. Our literacy rates, like literacy rates nationally, are frighteningly low. (One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards.) “Someone should do something about that,” I thought. But I’m not a practitioner and this is so deeply embedded in pedagogy. It was around this time that a friend of a friend connected me to a local teacher who was having similar thoughts from the opposite direction (i.e., “I know the practice, but I don’t know policy and advocacy.” Here she is, talking about reading instruction in a TedX Talk.)

There is clearly a problem here:

  1. One-third of fourth graders don’t meet “basic” reading standards. Two-thirds don’t meet “proficient” standards. The picture looks about like that whether you consider national or State assessments. Within that statistic, there are deep inequities. A strong majority of incarcerated adults and court-involved youth are struggling readers.
  2. Tutoring is a booming business, but it’s cost prohibitive for most students. If a family can afford it, they will shell out tens of thousands of dollars to get their kid the literacy instruction they need. It is a tremendous inequity.
  3. Lots of other states have taken action. Some are getting great results. Some don’t seem to be moving the needle. But policymakers in these states have said enough is enough and prioritized literacy on their policy agenda.

I went “down the rabbit hole.” First, I binged the Emily Hanford documentary series, a convenient entryway into the literacy conversation. I signed up to the “Science of Reading—What I Should Have Learned in College” national and Illinois Facebook pages. I studied findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report, and the 2006 National Literacy Panel Report for Language Minority Children and Youth. My podcast queue is heavily literacy-focused, as are most of the personal conversations with whomever I cross paths.

Around the same time as my immersion in the world of literacy, the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus was hard at work negotiating several reform pillars, including education, under the leadership of State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D—Maywood). Rep. Rita Mayfield (D—Waukegan) had filed an early literacy bill for years, and she was committed to seeing it through. It was in the ILBC bill at one point, but it came out so that it could be worked on further. After that, we started networking more, finding lots of committed parents and advocates, introducing folks to each other, and jointly establishing the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition.

At this point in my journey, here were my top three takeaways:

  1. Reading is not natural. It literally re-wires our brains as we make connections between the sounds in language, to the letters on a page, to meaning of the text. Some children make the inferences they need to figure it out no matter how they are taught, but most need direct, explicit instruction to “crack the code.”
  2. Phonemic awareness gets shortchanged, and phonics is often added as a side dish that isn’t well integrated with the rest of the lesson. The five pillars of reading are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension.
  3. Emerging readers should decode words while reading books with phonics patterns they have learned, rather than being encouraged to figure out the words from looking at pictures or memorizing repetitive text.

I was watching my then-kindergartener go through remote schooling, where his phenomenal teachers delivered instruction from a poorly rated curriculum that “cues” students to look at the pictures in their books when they come to an unknown word. (With the type of books they use, it’s really the only option, since most kindergarteners haven’t learned the phonics patterns to decode “scientist,” or “elephant,” or “porcupine.” These books typically feature a repetitive text pattern on every page, like “I went to the playground and played on the [insert equipment here],” and a picture that hints at that type of playground equipment. More advanced versions might have something different on the last page, like “I love going to the playground.”) I noticed his struggle to remember letters and their sounds, and his adorable language quirks, like saying “tremote” instead of remote, “pagic” instead of package, and “garjib” instead of garbage. This was the first time it occurred to me: he is one of the kids for whom explicit and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction will be absolutely critical.

When I was figuratively at the top of the first peak (“Mt. Stupid”), I think my biggest misconception was that there are two clearcut “sides” to this debate. A term of the 1990s, the “Reading Wars” still seemed to be going strong – with one segment of the population advocating for structured literacy and the other for balanced literacy. (As it turns out, neither is a silver bullet, both can be interpreted in multiple ways, and both actually support a lot of the same principles.) So came my fall from Mt. Stupid into the Valley of Despair.

I thought, “Explicit, systematic phonics instruction is everything.” It’s super important, but… Here’s what I oversimplified:

  1. It’s not more important than other elements (fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), and there are more elements to throw into the mix, like oral language development and writing.
  2. Different students will need different dosages of instruction of these elements. Some might not need much phonics, others will need many repetitions of the phonics patterns they learn, and all should receive the instruction that meets their needs. Students learning English will need a greater focus on oral language development, while students with dyslexia will need a heavy focus on phonemic awareness and phonics.
  3. Phonics is not an end destination. It is like training wheels. The goal is for word recognition to become so automatic that all of a reader’s attention can be focused on comprehension and analysis.
  4. Integration of the elements is important, so kids learn phonics patterns, have opportunities to re-integrate those skill into meaningful content, and apply those phonics skills when they read.
  5. Decoding should be the first step to tackling unknown words, but looking at context clues after word identification can support comprehension. The “three-cueing” approach suggests that multiple, equally good strategies can help students read an unknown word. (What word would make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right?) Relying on pictures and context as a primary way to identify a word defies what we know about how the brain learns to read. But these clues can be helpful to understand at the word level (vocabulary) and at the text level (comprehension).

Springfield is lucky to have a Children’s Dyslexia Center that provides an annual, free structured literacy training derived from Orton-Gillingham. I signed up. It’s not a small commitment; this will mean tutoring 100 hours over the year in addition to the classes and homework. But this issue has become so professionally and personally relevant, it makes absolute sense for me carve out the time for this. (I’m pretty close! I’ve got about 10 hours to go.)

People who have dedicated their lives to studying how children learn to read are still somewhere on that slope of enlightenment. There’s no end to it. Experts who seem aligned with each other and have decades of experience between them still get into heated debates about nuances of specific instructional methods. The research will keep going, and the curriculum will keep developing, and we will refine our beliefs about what works best over and over again for as long as we stay committed to this subject. It’s OK that we don’t have all the answers.

But it’s not OK to ignore this issue any longer. There are policies that Illinois should enact to improve equitable access to evidence-based, comprehensive literacy instruction for all students. None of them are silver bullets. None of them are easy. None of us individually have the only recipe for a policy solution.

After the Right to Read Act (SB 3900 (Lightford/Mayfield)) sparked interest from many groups, the State Board of Education (ISBE) announced that it would sponsor a convening of state, local, and national experts to dig into literacy best practices and policies for Illinois. This is exactly the sort of action we should be looking for. ISBE will be the agency to implement whatever changes are enacted, so it makes perfect sense that it will lead the conversation and assume ownership of this important issue. In fact, one of the things I have discovered is that ISBE has already adopted some pretty great literacy standards!

I am hopeful to see comprehensive and inclusive conversations about this going forward, with an eye toward adopting a literacy plan for the state that can truly support Illinois children – no matter where they live – to develop foundations to become strong readers.

P.S. – If you like puzzles, literacy, and the Illinois legislature, try your hand at this crossword we created for Stand’s newsletter. The more people solve these things, the more I can justify continuing to make them!

Governor Pritzker signed the budget this week, securing another $350 million for Evidence-Based Funding! Legislators adjourned early in the morning just under two weeks ago, bringing the spring 2022 legislative session to a close. Here’s a quick wrap-up on our priority issues and some next steps.

Expanding Access to Dual Credit: Both the Illinois House and Senate unanimously passed a bill to boost access to Dual Credit courses and give districts flexibility to launch and grow their own Dual Credit programs. If you haven’t already, take a moment to thank the legislators who led the way in the General Assembly.

Improving Literacy Outcomes: We’re collaborating with education advocates and our fellow members of the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition to improve the Right to Read Act so that it works for all students. We’ll be convening this summer with experts and leaders in the literacy field to ensure the bill is as strong as possible, with the goal of passing it later this year or next spring.

Growing CTE Collaboration and Access: House lawmakers approved a Resolution make access more equitable to Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses and to facilitate the partnerships needed for successful CTE programs to flourish. Join me and thank the lawmakers who made this House Resolution a priority.

Enacting Economic Security: In the fight for racial justice, Stand joined the Coalition to Make EIC Work, a group of dedicated organizations and advocates that fought to expand the Earned Income Credit. Lawmakers enacted a budget including a permanent expansion of the EIC, providing direct tax relief to more than 4.5 million working Illinois families. The Coalition will continue fighting to create a permanent Child Tax Credit.

Fighting for Youth Justice: The work with our partners in the Debt Free Justice Campaign continues as we grow our coalition and refine the bill to help make the most impact for Illinois youth and their families by eliminating juvenile court fees and fines. We know that creating a brighter future for us all includes ensuring our juvenile court system is just and fair for everyone, and aimed towards healing, youth development, and reducing recidivism.

Thank you for everything you did this spring to help ensure positive results for Illinois children and families. The work continues, and I know you’ll be there as we take those next steps soon.

We’ve been focused on elevating the early literacy crisis here in Illinois and working with advocates in the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition to solve this problem in a collaborative way.

That’s why I was struck by this New York Times article that dove into the current reading crisis. The report elevates the crisis to a national level, showing the impact on students across the country. It illustrates the effects of the pandemic while also noting that the reading problems predate the pandemic.

“The causes are multifaceted, but many experts point to a shortage of educators trained in phonics and phonemic awareness — the foundational skills of linking the sounds of spoken English to the letters that appear on the page,” the report notes. “The pandemic has compounded those issues.”

Based on the progress and updates made by other states in recent years, we know what works when it comes to teaching children to read using evidence-based literacy instruction. As noted above, a number of those practices were highlighted in the Times’ coverage.

Children who struggle with reading face a lifelong impact both in and out of the classroom.

The Times report also highlights that the issue is also exacerbated by the teacher shortage, with a lack of qualified educators and outdated curricula holding back some schools. Even researchers offering intensive, small group tutoring at underserved schools have had difficulty filling open positions.

I hope you’ll dive deeper into this issue and join us on the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. Visit the Coalition’s website, join the mailing list, and add your voice to those of other Illinoisans who have joined together to improve reading outcomes for our state’s students.

I’ve heard some folks describe learning to read as a “neurological backflip.” Teaching something like that takes a huge amount of skill and persistence – something I’ve seen first-hand as my young daughter has started reading more and more this school year.

But when only 33% of Illinois fourth-grade students are proficient readers, we know it’s time for action. Most other states have already acted to ensure their literacy instruction is evidence-based. Illinois hasn’t…yet. But we now have a bill in Springfield that would do just that!

The Illinois Right to Read Act (HB5032/SB3900) provides the support and professional development that current and future educators deserve – helping them better understand the brain science behind learning to read.

We need to let legislators know we support evidence-based literacy instruction. With one click, join me in contacting Springfield and showing your support for Illinois students and educators.

The Right to Read Act is a solution to help more Illinois students become proficient readers.

It would ensure pre-service teachers demonstrate their knowledge of evidence-based reading instruction. The State Board of Education would offer support to districts across Illinois to adopt evidence-based literacy curriculum and structured literacy training for educators. ISBE would also offer supports to educators to improve their practice in literacy instruction with curated professional development.

The Right to Read Act is on the move in Springfield. We need your voice to help continue this momentum. Act now!

At my house, we read all the time. I push my foster daughters, who are teen moms, to read to their children. While we might grow frustrated with the accumulation of toys to trip over, we are always excited for new books to read. It’s the best part of our daily bedtime routine.

Imagine my surprise when I started digging into literacy research and learned that, while all of this is super important, it’s only part of the equation. Learning to read has been called a “neurological backflip” and teaching children to read takes tremendous skill and persistence.

And that’s why early literacy instruction is one of the issues we are focused on in 2022.

The fact is that only 33% of Illinois fourth grade students were proficient readers on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. How have we grown to accept this? What is more fundamental to our children’s education than learning to read?

Most states have acted recently to ensure literacy instruction is evidence-based. But Illinois isn’t one of them…yet.

Join us and show your support for improving literacy instruction here in Illinois.

This year, we joined forces with advocates from across the state to form the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition. This is a diverse group of individuals and organizations who want to improve public policy and funding so that all students have access to evidence-based literacy instruction and teachers have the support they deserve.

Would it surprise you to learn that many teacher preparation programs still highlight instructional methods that aren’t evidence-based? Or that many Illinois schools use curriculum that also isn’t aligned with the boatload of evidence about how children learn to read? We can do better!

We’ll be in touch soon with other ways to get involved in this campaign. In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me (and many others across the state!) by showing your support for helping more young Illinoisans learn to read.

1/12/2021 UPDATE: The bill has now passed both chambers and will head to the Governor for his signature! Amendment 3 made a few additional changes before it passed, most notably removing the changes to the Invest in Kids Act altogether, launching a feasibility study to consider the appropriate agency home for the Workforce Investment Act program (rather than moving it to IDES), and adding a literacy focus and some parameters to the Freedom Schools section.

1/9/2021 UPDATE: Amendment 2 has been filed. The major difference is that some components have been removed: the Equity in Early Childhood Education Act, the anti-racism grants within the Evidence-Based Funding Formula (which the Professional Review Panel will now consider, instead), the provisions to lengthen the school year for learning recovery, and the driver’s license stuff (which I’m guessing found a more appropriate home in a criminal justice bill). These were all good things; they will live to fight another day. We get it that it’s a careful balancing act when deciding what all goes into a huge package like this and, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what’s in there if it can’t get 60 votes in the House and 30 in the Senate.

There are some additions of other good stuff, most notably an Inclusive American History Commission and some fleshing out about periods of Black History that have to be taught. It adds prioritization for National Board Certified Teachers stipends to rural and diverse candidate cohort facilitators, and shift administration of the Workforce Investment Act from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security.

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For months, education champion and rockstar negotiator Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford has brought together education and racial justice advocates to craft a nearly 500-page amendment to advance racial equity in Illinois schools, from birth through college. This week, she filed the legislation, compiling dozens of policy changes with the goal of reversing centuries of systemic racism in education and significantly bolstering opportunities for Black students.

This bill is jam-packed with good policy ideas, many of which Stand for Children supported as individual concepts and which we are now pleased to support as an overall package. The summary below walks through everything that is in there as of today, starting with a few of my favorites and eventually getting to everything. (If things change substantially, I’ll pop back over here with some updates over the next few days as well.)

ACADEMIC ACCELERATION

Based on a Washington state law that tripled the percentage of Black high school students in advanced courses, this policy requires schools to automatically enroll students who meet or exceed standards into the next most rigorous course. Students who are automatically enrolled can choose to opt out if a different course better fits their goals. It does not remove any of the existing pathways for enrollment into advanced courses, but it removes any element of implicit bias and opens doors for more students to eventually access courses that earn them early college credit. (pages 62 – 67. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITABLE COURSEWORK FOR COLLEGE ACCESS

No matter where they go to high school, all students should have access to the recommended courses needed for admission into any public university in Illinois. This provision requires the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) to report college admission coursework recommendations. Students must have access to these recommended courses. Schools can fulfill the requirement to provide it by offering it in house or partnering with a neighboring district, community college, or other course provider. The bill also adds a requirement that the science courses required for graduation be laboratory sciences, and, with a long implementation period to allow teacher pipeline reforms to work, adds two years of foreign language to the graduation requirements. (pages 42 – 49. See our factsheet here.)

EQUITY IN EARLY EDUCATION ACT

Deleted. But stay tuned for this spring… We’ll be working on this! See our factsheet here.

COMPUTER SCIENCE AND LITERACY

The bill defines computer science and directs ISBE to create computer science standards. It requires high schools to offer computer science to student who want it. The graduation requirements are modified to require one course to include a focus in computer literacy. Schools must provide students with opportunities for developmentally appropriate computer literacy skills beginning in elementary school. (pages 49 – 62)

EVIDENCE-BASED FUNDING

The monumental 2017 overhaul of the school funding formula also included a provision creating a Professional Review Panel (PRP) to monitor the formula throughout implementation. HB 2170 would charge the PRP with reviewing the adult-to-student ratios specified in the cost factors to determine whether it accurately reflects staffing needed to support students in poverty, changes in cost factors to promote racial equity, the impact of investing $350 million each year, an overview of alternative funding structures, and potential efficiencies within the system, appropriate funding levels for re-enrolling students who previously dropped out, and evidence-based practices that reduce academic achievement gaps for Black students. (pages 149 – 151)

LEARNING RECOVERY

HB 2170 charges the P-20 Council with considering long-term and short-term learning recovery strategies, including a plan to address the digital divide; evaluate the impact of school closures and remote learning on student outcomes; establish a system for the collection of data; and ensure more time for students’ academic, social emotional, and mental health needs. (pages 67 – 77)

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL HEALTH

The Whole Child Task Force is created to establish equitable, inclusive, safe, and supported environment in all schools, taking steps to ensure every child has access to educators and social workers trained in evidence-based interventions and restorative practices. (pages 26 – 34) The Freedom Schools fund would provide grants, subject to appropriation, for enriching programs that affirm Black identity. (pages 77 – 81)

DIVERSE EDUCATOR PIPELINE

Four components address the shortage of teachers generally and Black teachers specifically (pages 179 – 208):

  • It removes the 3.0 GPA requirement to get into alternative licensure programs.
  • The Minority Teacher Initiative scholarship program is amended to increase priority funds for Black males, change the prioritization from first come/first serve to those who received scholarships the previous year and have demonstrated financial need, and create a set-aside for bilingual teachers as the appropriation for the program grows.
  • AIM HIGH is amended to reduce universities’ match requirement from 100%, with institutions with more low-income students kicking in 20% and those with fewer low-income students contributing 60%.
  • Finally, the Transitions in Education Act encourages ISBE, IBE, and ICCB to establish a task force for a Major Panel in Education, which would identify courses that would be accepted upon transfer.
  • The National Board Certified Teacher program would prioritize in awarding stipends to NBCT Candidate Cohort Trainers who work with rural and diverse candidates. (pages 252 – 258)

HIGHER EDUCATION ACCESS

Nearly half of full-time community college students are placed in developmental education courses, which do not earn college credit, upon starting college. For Black students, the number is even higher: 71% are funneled into developmental courses. Only 8% of Black students who are placed in developmental education courses will go on to graduate. The Developmental Education Reform Act creates a multiple measures approach to placement in credit-bearing college courses. Students who successfully complete a high school transitional course, earn a specific GPA, or meet certain thresholds on placement exams or standardized tests would be able to bypass developmental courses. Institutions must publicly post their placement policies, and ICCB and IBHE would consolidate the information into reports disaggregated by demographic data and by developmental course model. (pages 155 – 164)

The Equity in Higher Education Act outlines the General Assembly’s support for the IBHE strategic plan to close equity gaps, increase post-secondary degree attainment, and improve affordability. It encourages IBHE to prepare an array of policy changes needed for implementation of the plan by May 1, 2021. (pages 151 – 155)

EARLY CHILDHOOD

Many components of the bill deal with expansion of early childhood, increasing compensation for early childhood teachers, and improving the quality and equity of programs, including provisions to:

  • Codify the requirement for an annual valid, reliable, and developmentally appropriate kindergarten readiness assessment. ISBE currently uses the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) for this. (pages 1 – 11)
  • Allow children to continue receiving early intervention services after their third birthday until the school year starts and they have access to preschool. (pages 11 – 16)
  • Support the goals of the Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, which is working to create a more equitable and efficient system, consolidate programs into a single adequately staffed agency, ensure equitable and adequate funding, redesign payment mechanisms, and consider data collection needs. It would also encourage a timetable for the work with a designated body to implement recommendations. (pages 16 – 20)
  • Amend the Infant/Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Act to encourage increasing availability of consultations, developing materials for providers and parents about the value of mental health consultations, and increasing funding for training and support. It also remedies a problem with diagnostic coding to remove barriers to developmentally appropriate assessments. (pages 34 – 39)
  • Create the Early Childhood Workforce Act to increase the early childhood teacher pipeline and its diversity. Under the Act, DHS, ISBE, and IBHE would each have a role in providing outreach and access to financial supports to increase the diversity of the pipeline, analysis on scholarship recipients, and barriers for early childhood teachers to complete coursework to earn credentials. (pages 40 – 42)
  • Encourage DHS to re-examine the definition of “at-risk” and the diagnosed medical conditions that typically result in a delay, charge the Early Intervention Training Program to create a plan for outreach, develop a plan for the State to launch early intervention specialized teams, and work in a public-private partnership to establish at least two demonstration sites with hospital neo-natal intensive care units. (pages 216 – 220)

INVEST IN KIDS

The Invest in Kids tax-credit scholarship program currently provides donors tax credits for donating to program, which provides private school scholarships to students in families below 300% of the federal poverty level. HB 2170 would add the ability for scholarships to be used at technical academies for Career and Technical Education programs. (pages 164 – 179)

DATA COLLECTION TO SUPPORT RACIAL JUSTICE

data collection provision, which requires the Governor’s Office and the Department of Innovation and Technology to jointly administer a governance to catalog data supporting major programs, identify similar fields in datasets, improve data quality, collect racial and ethnicity data, develop common process and legal approaches for data sharing, establishing common codes across datasets, and generally catalyzing the process to better interagency data analysis. (pages 20 – 26)

INCLUSIVE HISTORY CURRICULUM

The bill requires ISBE to adopt social science learning standards that are inclusive of all individuals in the country. An Inclusive American History Commission is created to review available resources for use in schools that reflect the diversity of the State, provide guidance on each learning standard on how to ensure instruction and curriculum are not bias to value specific cultures or experiences over others, and provide guidance on professional learning on how to utilize and locate non-dominant cultural narratives and sources. It also amends the Black History study requirement to add the pre-enslavement period and the American civil rights renaissance, and a study of the reasons why Black people came to be enslaved. (pages 208 – 214)

WORKFORCE INVESTMENT ACT ADMINISTRATION

The responsibilities and funding connected to the Workforce Investment Act are transferred from the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Department of Employment Security. (pages 214 – 252)

Sometimes I feel like my work life and home life are totally disconnected, competing elements in my world. But that certainly wasn’t the case the day I was at work drumming up info on how early childhood programs were being defunded and I received a text that the program for the 3-year old of my teenage foster daughter was ending because they lost their state grant.

This program, Parents as Teachers, is among hundreds of early child providers who responded to the Request for Proposals (RFP) from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Many programs got funded. In fact, because Springfield added $50 million more this year to the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG), there will be 5,000 more kids getting access to programs this year. However, a hundred or so did not receive a grant, and some long-serving programs are planning to close their doors.

Before we get into why, let’s start with the basics: What is the ECBG? It’s a program in the ISBE budget that funds preschool and birth-to-three programs. This year, there was almost $500 million appropriated to the ECBG. Programs serving children ages 0-3 receive about 20% of the funds and the remainder goes to preschool programs.

State law requires funding to be awarded through competitive grants. That is, districts and other providers apply for grants, and ISBE funds the ones deemed to be high-quality. This year, the RFP process was opened to new applicants, which is a change since the last RFP process in 2012. At that time, the RFP was only open to providers that had previously received grants. Not only was this year’s RFP process open to new applicants, so the pool was bigger, applicants were encouraged to write their proposals for the actual costs of providing a high-quality program, so a lot more money was requested than there were available funds. Providers could apply for Prevention Initiative funding (for birth-to-three programs), Preschool for All (for Pre-K programs), and Preschool for All Expansion grants (to expand infrastructure and fund full-day programs in high-poverty areas’ Pre-K programs).

ISBE Rules outline what the agency looks for in the proposals and require programs to earn at least 60 points, with 100 points possible:

  • Population to be Served (e.g., how much poverty is in the area and how well do programs recruit the students most in need) – 30 points
  • Quality of Program – 40 points
  • Experience and Qualifications of Program Staff – 20 points
  • Cost Effectiveness of the Program – 10 points

ISBE added 10 additional “priority points” for programs that serve the neediest populations and regions. Three reviewers scored each proposal and their scores were averaged. Programs with more than 60 points would be qualified for funding. (Some programs we’ve heard about in the news didn’t meet the 60-point threshold, like Waukegan and Jonesboro.)

Among the programs that scored over 60, several dozen Prevention Initiative and Preschool Expansion Grants still did not receive a grant because there was not enough money to fully fund the need. (My foster granddaughter’s program is in this category: it received 70 points, but ISBE only had enough funds to get through Prevention Initiative applications scoring over 77 points.) You can see the scores for all the applicants here. It would cost about $20 million to fund the programs in this category.

And finally, a third group of programs are the ones that did get funded. Many of these applicants wrote grants based on what they needed to run a world-class program, with the best evidence-based practices. ISBE awarded these applicants a cost-of-living bump from their last grant, but none got the sort of funding increase they sought. If the requested amounts had been fully funded, it would have cost $170 million.

In a bit of good news, yesterday ISBE announced that, the agency is working with the Department of Human Services to find the $20 million needed to fund all the qualified programs (the ones scoring over 60).

There’s no easy solution to any of this as long as we continue to underfund early childhood.

I’ve heard some suggest that early childhood funding should flow through a formula instead of through competitive grants. In fact, during the school funding reform debate, some early drafts moved early childhood funds into the main funding formula. The most obvious problem with this approach is that formula funds go to school districts, while about one-third of early childhood providers are non-profit organizations, which don’t get formula dollars.

There are other questions too, like whether the quality of programs funded would be impacted and whether funds would be used for other purposes if they were added to the main formula. The Professional Review Panel, created in the school funding bill, met for the first time last month and created a subcommittee on early childhood issues. I’m guessing that will be the most immediate place for the formula vs. grant conversation, and I’m also hopeful that the panel will discuss what “adequate” early childhood funding looks like so that we can also put Illinois on the path to fully funding the needs for all of our young children.