SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Governor J.B. Pritzker touted his initiative for early childhood education and child care in the budget Thursday while visiting the Early Childhood Learning Center.

The $250 million program, Smart Start Illinois, is meant to provide every child in the state with access to a preschool program. 

“It is important for us to make sure that every three and four year old in Illinois can go to preschool and has child care available to them,” Pritzker said.

Bree Hankins, a parent with one of her kids in the center’s program and of another who completed it, said it helped prepare her daughter for school.

“Being here, she built her skills, developed a foundation, came into confidence in her identity as a student, and so she thrived during that time,” Hankins said. “She learned to read, and when it was time to go back into the classroom, she was ready, and I fully attributed that to her school experiences here at ELC.”

Pritzker’s proposed budget also allocates $100 million to expand current childcare facilities and to build new ones.

“Too many families can’t access early childhood programs at all, because there are no providers or available spots near their home or work,” Pritzker said. “This program will be the beginning of the end of early childhood deserts in Illinois.”

Child care workers say that the money from the budget would help bring more kids into classrooms.

“We often have a waitlist for classroom placements, but with the governor’s planned expansion for both enrollment and facilities, there will be an opportunity for more children to have a preschool experience before entering kindergarten so that they can go on to achieve great success in our public school system,” Kevi Jackson, a pre-k coordinator at the center, said.

Despite the governor’s proposed investment in the multi-year plan, the Office of Management and Budget has projected the state could enter a mild recession in the future.

Because of this, Republicans have criticized Pritzker’s overall budget arguing that the state isn’t prepared to fund more programs now that federal funding the state received during the Covid-19 pandemic is ending. As a result, they argue that taxes could go up.

But Pritzker claims that that won’t be the case, citing spending cuts the state made during fiscal year 2021, at the worst point in the Covid-19 pandemic, as revenue fell. 

“Every budget that I put forward has had a revenue estimate associated with it that has been conservative, and that we have carefully watched throughout the year,” Pritzker said.