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Illinois lawmakers look for options to improve early childhood education

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Several members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus participated in a Senate Joint Committee hearing addressing early childhood education Wednesday afternoon. Senators acknowledge Illinois has seen significant improvements in education in recent years. However, they note there’s still a long road ahead to address racial disparities.

Black caucus members hope to address issues of school affordability, transparency, and accountability. But Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) is also pushing for a major change in early childhood funding.

“I’m hoping to adopt a new equitable funding model just as we did for the evidence-based funding model for K-12,” Lightford said. “We know that there’s a need as well in the early childhood space.”

Advance Illinois is one of the advocacy groups helping lawmakers with their goals. President Robin Steans emphasized many families struggle to find quality early childhood educational programs they can afford.

“Making sure every Black child has access to high-quality education and training from birth to career is the single most important thing we can do to level the playing field,” Steans said.

She explained less than one-third of Illinois students are fully prepared to enter kindergarten. Steans said data further proves the equity gap starts early for children.

Lack of diversity in classrooms

However, lawmakers also emphasize students need strong role models in the classroom that look like them.

“You don’t see Black men in the informative years until your mind and your behaviors are shaped. Usually, by the third grade, you formed a good portion of who you are,” said Sen. Christopher Belt (D-Belleville).

With previous experience as a correctional officer and school board president, Belt also highlighted the need for strong teachers to help with comprehension during early childhood education.

“We’re really committed to following research on what’s really going to make a difference in turning around kids’ lives,” said Illinois Fight Crime: Invest in Kids President Tim Carpenter. “Especially those kids who are starting out with a disadvantage and making sure they get to Kindergarten sort of ready to succeed.”

Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood) chairs the Senate Education Committee. She feels training for teachers and diversity in hiring is critical in moving forward.

“We know that it’s important that the instructor in front of the students look like the kids they’re teaching. We really need to do a better job in our hiring practices,” Bertino-Tarrant added.

Early childhood comprehension

Lawmakers and advocates also worry about the impact COVID-19 will have on younger students, as many can’t focus on lessons well during remote learning.

“Even when you do remote learning exactly as intended and everybody has the devices, equipment, and access and broadband technology support they need, it doesn’t work the same for everybody. It does not work as well, particularly for students of color, particularly for students in low-income families,” said Steans.

Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) chairs the House Higher Education Committee. She is also co-chairing the Black Caucus effort to address educational inequity.

“We have been able to identify specific policy initiatives that create the disparities that you will witness in the next several weeks,” Ammons explained. “But, we’re not just showing you the disparities. We’re identifying the solutions as well.”

Ammons noted the Black Caucus needs everyone’s help to bring “true justice” in access to education.

The Democratic leaders from both chambers have shown support for the new agenda. Caucus members will craft their bills from suggestions discussed during the virtual hearings.

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Mike Miletich

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