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By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – Even though Gov. JB Pritzker has yet to sign the budget bill lawmakers just passed, the Illinois State Board of Education is seeking applicants for some of the new money contained in that bill.
ISBE is looking for new providers to offer preschool programs in areas of the state designated as “preschool deserts,” with the goal of creating 5,000 new preschool slots in the upcoming school year.
The $75 million in new funding available for new preschool slots this year is part of Pritzker’s $250 million “Smart Start Illinois” initiative, a four-year effort that seeks to make early childhood day care and preschool available and affordable to every family in the state who needs it.
That will bring the state’s total funding for early childhood block grants to just over $673 million.
“We are wanting to make sure that every community is aware that these grants are available,” State Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders said in a recent interview. “We want to make sure that school districts know. We want to make sure that day care centers, religious organizations, community-based organizations – that anybody that might serve children in pre-K opportunities knows about these opportunities and can apply.”
ISBE defines a preschool desert as an area where there is an insufficient number of publicly funded slots to serve at least 80 percent of 3- and 4-year-old children from low-income families.
“And you find them everywhere, from Belvedere to Springfield to Shawnee, all the way down in southern Illinois,” Sanders said.
The agency has identified 196 areas – including district regions, counties and ZIP codes – in the state that meet that definition. Each has a gap of 15 or more seats. Of those, 108 districts show a 100 percent need, meaning there are as many needed seats as there are priority eligible children. Those areas have a combined 5,100 needed seats.
The grants will fund the creation of new programs as well as the expansion of existing programs with priority being given to applicants who serve children in preschool deserts outside the city of Chicago, which has a separate appropriation for early childhood programs.
The grants provide funding for three programs:
Preschool for All, which is 2.5 hours per day of preschool for 3-5-year-olds with licensed teachers and a standards-aligned curriculum.
Preschool for All Expansion, which offers five hours of preschool per day along with physical and mental health services for 3-5-year-olds in the highest need communities.
Prevention Initiative, which offers child development and family support services for expectant parents and families with children from birth to age 3 who are at risk of academic challenges.
ISBE has developed a website that offers information about the grant programs and technical assistance for potential applicants. Applications are open to public entities as well as private nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Applications are due no later than 4 p.m. on June 14.