Bill Creating New State Agency Focused on Early Childhood Programs Headed to Pritzker’s Desk

State Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, pictured Thursday, May 9, 2024, during House floor debate of Senate Bill 1, which would create a new state agency dubbed the Department of Early Childhood. (Andrew Campbell / Capitol News Illinois)State Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, pictured Thursday, May 9, 2024, during House floor debate of Senate Bill 1, which would create a new state agency dubbed the Department of Early Childhood. (Andrew Campbell / Capitol News Illinois)

Illinois is preparing to dedicate an entire state agency to matters affecting children in their earliest years.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced in October his intent to move disparate services under the umbrella of a new state agency: the Department of Early Childhood.

On Thursday, members of the Illinois House voted 93-18 to send a measure (Senate Bill 1) to Pritzker that would bring the governor’s proposal to fruition.

Currently, various agencies — the Illinois State Board of Education, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Human Services — separately handle major early childhood programs. This includes day care licensing, the Preschool for All initiative to extend preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds, and state-funded early intervention that provides services to infants and toddlers with developmental delays.

State Rep. Mary Beth Canty, an Arlington Heights Democrat who sponsored the bill, said that disjointed setup can cause confusion for families and service providers alike.

“We see duplication of efforts, duplication of forms,” Canty said.

Housing everything under one agency, she said, will increase efficiency and transparency.

“We can make early childhood simpler, better and fairer,” Canty said.

A task force formed by Pritzker has been charged with developing a plan for the new agency (Executive Order 2023-09), but it will still take time for it to outwardly launch.

The Department of Early Childhood is slated to come into existence this July but won’t function as a one-stop shop for early childhood matters until summer 2026.

Canty said a team of experts will spend the next two years examining how to best make the transition without an interruption in services.

Projections from Pritzker’s office put the cost of that phase-in period at $13 million, which will pay for 30 full-time employees as well as operational expenses and the reconciliation of computer systems and agency procedures, according to Canty.

The Illinois Senate last month approved the measure with no opposition, but in the House, Republicans including state Rep. Blaine Wilhour, who’s from Fayette County in southern Illinois, questioned the need for an additional state agency before fully knowing what it will do and how it will function.

“I don’t think anywhere in the history of government, especially in the history of government in the state of Illinois, have we created a bureaucracy — especially massive bureaucracy — and it worked out well for the taxpayers,” Wilhour said.

But Canty said Illinois may well be losing federal grant opportunities due to the current “spaghetti bowl of funding” and that eliminating duplicative services could lead to savings.

“We need to make things easier for everybody,” Canty said.

According to the legislation, more than 875,000 children under 5 live in Illinois, and those earliest years are critical.

“By age 5, 90% of brain development is complete,” the bill reads.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) said lawmakers frequently focus on the need to address root causes of issues like violence.

“Getting to our earliest learners and making sure that they are provided with quality education from birth is the best investment I believe we can make in the root causes of the challenges that face our state,” Guzzardi said.

Since becoming governor, Pritzker has prioritized early childhood services and last year introduced Smart Start, a multi-year plan geared toward improving access to early childhood education by funding new day cares in child care deserts and increasing wages for child care providers.

Pritzker proposed boosting early childhood funding by $150 million in the next budget, which he said will create 5,000 more preschool seats, with a goal of universal preschool by 2027.

Legislators are in budget negotiations now, with an end-of-month deadline to finalize a new state spending plan.

Contact Amanda Vinicky: @AmandaVinicky[email protected]

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