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Advocacy group presses for Ill. preschool funding

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Illinois lawmakers grappling with the state's budget mess must make funding preschool a priority because after a decade of gains enrollment has slipped 20,000 over the past four years, a children's advocacy group said Thursday in releasing its yearly progress report on the state's young people.

Punctuating the Kids Count report's pro-education theme, Voices for Illinois Children's president Gaylord Gieseke on Thursday also urged legislators to do what it takes to rid Illinois of a "very sobering" distinction — the nation's worst in state funding for public education.

"We feel we are at a crossroads. Budgets are about hard choices, and we challenge Illinois to do the right thing," Gieseke told The Associated Press, singling out increasing the ranks of early childhood education as "our highest priority."

"We believe it can and should be done, if you set your mind to it in this difficult time," she said, noting that Illinois school districts got $200 million less in state funding for this school year, given the state's budget crisis. "We challenge them to make it a higher priority. All the research on this topic shows that the return on such investment is very significant."

The report, which also details lingering educational, poverty and other challenges affecting Illinois' young people, dovetailed educational themes in President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech two days earlier, when he pushed for universal preschool, notably for 4-year-olds from families with low or moderate incomes.

"Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than $7 later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime," Obama said.

Calling early childhood education her group's top concern, Gieseke said Illinois not so long ago was a nationwide leader in expanding access to state-supported preschool, citing statewide participation that doubled between fiscal years 1998 and 2009, when enrollment was more than 95,000.

Since then, Thursday's report suggests, budget cuts have reduced that number to 81,000 as of last fiscal year, with more belt-tightening expected to cost an additional 6,000 children access to preschool soon.

"That's a real red flag for us," Gieseke said, touting early investments in education as key to building a strong workforce and economic recovery.

As for the big picture, Gieseke insisted public education has gotten the short shrift in state funding. Illinois' state share for public schools as of the 2010 fiscal year — the latest data available — was 28 percent, the least among states and far below the U.S. average of 43 percent, Thursday's report showed.

Over the past four years, state aid to Illinois school districts has declined by more than $320 million, with funding now at its lowest level since 2007.

"It wasn't long ago that investments in children were a high priority in Illinois," Gieseke said. "We can't continue to allow the state's fiscal crisis to justify policy choices that put our children, families and communities at risk."

The report again showed wide racial disparities statewide in terms of family income and academic achievement, with African-Americans and Latinos having the highest child-poverty rates and lower educational achievement.

It offered some encouraging news, notably when it came to Illinois children and health care. Nearly 1.7 million children statewide were enrolled in Medicaid and related programs in the 2011 fiscal year, more than double from just two years earlier. And just 3.7 percent of Illinois youths lacked health-insurance coverage, half of the nationwide rate and the fifth lowest among states.

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Online:

— Voices for Illinois Children: www.voices4kids.org

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