Posted Online: Jan. 18, 2013, 6:33 pm

Advocates seek restoration of early childhood education funds

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By Eric Timmons, etimmons@qconline.com

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Photo: Todd Mizener
State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, second from right, answers a question during the Quad Cities Chamber Illinois Legislative Forum at Stoney Creek Inn in Moline on Friday. The other Illinois legislators on the panel are, from left, State Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, State Rep. Mike Smiddy, D-Hillsdale, and State Senator Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap.
Cutbacks in early childhood education mean 200 fewer children attended state-funded preschool last last year in Rock Island County compared to 2010, according to a coalition of childcare advocates.

Meanwhile, general state aid for schools in Illinois now has shrunk to its 2007 level, as the state continues to battle with the rising costs of public pensions.

Combined, the cutbacks "act as a powerful force to keep children from receiving the education they deserve and depend on to do well in life," said Paula Corrigan-Halpern, policy advocacy director with Voices for Illinois Children.

"The reduction in general state aid and the loss of Preschool for All Programs is a one-two punch for some of the districts serving large numbers of low-income students," Ms. Corrigan-Halpern said at a legislative forum in Moline organized by Voices in Action for QC Children.

The state's deep fiscal problems and the resulting cutbacks to services that support children from low-income backgrounds will come back to bite Illinois in the future, speakers at the forum said.

Funding for the Department of Children and Family Services was reduced by 13 percent or $105 million last year, the deepest cut absorbed by any major state agency.

Ms. Corrigan-Halpern said the funding should be restored to "ensure the safety and well-being of the state's most vulnerable children.

She spoke before 140 people at the annual legislative forum organized by Voices in Action for QC Children, a coalition of local childcare organizations that includes the Child Abuse Council and Skip-a-Long Child Development Services.

State lawmakers from the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Quad-Cities also spoke at the forum.

Ms. Corrigan-Halpern urged the Illinois lawmakers to restore the $25 million cut to the fiscal year 2013 early childhood block grant budget.State Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, responded he expected the funding would be restored this year.

The funding is particularly important as children who fall behind in fundamental skills early are unlikely to make up that ground, Ms. Corrigan-Halpern said.

Sue Swisher, Executive Director of the Child Abuse Council, another speaker at the forum, said high poverty rates among children needed to be addressed.

In Rock Island County, 19.9 percent of children live in poverty, with 20.2 percent of children in Scott County below the poverty line, according to the most recent statistics.

"It's particularly troubling that increasing numbers of children and families are being left behind," Ms. Swisher said. "It's going to take years for many families with children to recover from the Great Recession."

State Sen. Darin LaHood, R-Dunlap, said the state's ballooning debt, which now includesan estimated $97 billion pension-funding deficit and more than $9 billion in unpaid bills, made it difficult to deal with problems highlighted by childcare advocates.

The forum was held on Friday at the Stoney Creek Inn, Moline.Laurie Walker, chief executive officer of Skip-A-Long Child Development Services, concluded the event by urging those present to put pressure on elected officials to make sure they address the needs of local children.