This past week, Illinois Governor Blagojevich signed  the first law in the nation that establishes the goal of universally-available public preschool for all 3- and 4-year olds in that state.
As a first step, the legislature this year set aside $45 million in additional funding to open up 10,000 new slots with a priority for children with language barriers, developmental disabilities and middle-income families earning less than four times the poverty rate-- up to $80,000 per year for a family of four. In the last four years, Illinois had already increased funding for preschool by $90 million, so this was the natural next step.
Currently, federal and state dollars in Illinois pay for preschool for 130,000 low-income or academically "at risk" Illinois children, but the new law aims to make pre-K available regardless of income, with the goal of enrolling 190,000 children in publicly-funded preschool by 2010.
"This is a bill that can raise the bar for the rest of the country," said Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a Harvard professor of pediatrics and national child development expert, in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times.
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Universal Pre-K: An Emerging Trend
Illinois' new law is just part of a trend  in recent years of expanding pre-K in the states; in 2005, state lawmakers increased pre-K funding by $600 million across 26 states, adding 180,000 more children to pre-school rolls around the country.
And the increased commitments to pre-K continued this year. As just one example, Tennessee announced  that it will add 227 new pre-K classes to serve 5000 "at risk" 4-year-olds statewide, bringing the state total to 13,500, funded by a combination of state lottery and general revenues.
Still, most families across the country either have to pay for private programs or do without preschool for their kids, since fewer than 10 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide are in state-funded preschool programs. Because of this, states are increasingly moving towards integrating existing preschool programs into a more universal pre-K program that is seen as an extension of the overall K-12 public education system. In creating its goal of universal pre-K, Illinois is joining Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma as states with statewide preschool programs.
And other states are looking to join these pioneers; while California voters did not support a recent pre-K ballot initiative (partly some analysts believe because of general ballot initiative fatigue), the legislature did support a substantial expansion  of preschool funds. And new Virginia Governor Tim Kaine  has announced the goal of universal preschool for every 4-year old in that state, although the plan is not likely to be introduced until 2008 after a commission established by the governor comes back with recommendations on the best way to design and fund the program.
Why Universal Pre-K?
Three simple reasons explain this turn to universal pre-K:
- the desire for greater equity in our educational system
- the clear economic returns to society from investing in early education
- the need to lift the financial burden on parents
Educational Equity: Since research increasingly shows that early education provides children with the skills necessary for later school success, most analysts see broadly-accessible preschool as critical for giving all children an equal educational opportunity. A study by NIEER  of pre-K programs in five states -- Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia - found that children in those states had clear gains in early language, literacy, and mathematical development. A more recent study of the Oklahoma pre-K program  found across-the board gains from preschool for all socio-economic groups. Significantly, the Oklahoma study indicated that lower-income children gained more benefits when programs included middle-income children-- a strong argument for more universal preschool programs that bring children together from all communities.
Economic Returns: And if the returns to the children are clear, so are the economic returns to states investing in them. Just last week, a major study, The Economic Promise of Investing in High Quality Preschool , released by the business-backed Committee for Economic Development at a DC conference, highlighted research that every dollar invested in preschool is expected to yield $2 to $4 in future societal benefits, including savings for states from less crime and lower remedial educational costs down the road.
Easing Financial Burden on Parents: One key benefit of preschool programs are that they ease the financial burden on parents of paying for child care and preschool programs themselves-- and making sure that working families are forced to put their kids in substandard and potentially unsafe care situations out of financial desperation. A recent study  found that families with a 4-year-old spend an average of $3,016 to $9,628 a year in child care fees-- roughly 10% of median household incomes and an even higher percentage for many lower-income working families. While pre-K doesn't solve all those child care issues, it can play a significant role in easing the burden and can provide a real alternative to often substandard child care options available in many communities.
Models for Universal Pre-K
The Oklahoma Preschool Program  is the longest standing state pre-K program and has achieved the highest percentage of 4-year olds in publicly-funded preschool in the country. The link above highlights key statutory provisions on defining eligibility, the responsibility of local school boards, and the creation of both curriculum and teacher certification standards for the pre-K program.
Senate Bill 1497 , the Illinois Preschool for All law, doesn't create a similar right by Illinois children to pre-K education yet, but instead specifies a grant program for local school systems to expand their preschool programs, along with guidelines for the state Board of Education to assist in the expansion of the program to achieve the goal of universal access in coming years as funding expands.
The legal organization, Starting at 3, has a state-by-state breakdown  of statutes and the legal context for pre-K systems in different states, while the Economic Commission of the States  tracks ongoing legislative developments. The Commission also has a searchable database  of program characteristics from different states.
Pre[k]now put out a recent report, Funding the Future , outlining the different ways states are funding their pre-K programs.
The Center for Law And Social Policy (CLASP) issued two recent reports, Missed Opportunities  on how states can better use Title I funds from the No Child Left Behind Act to fund preschool, and All Together Now  on how states are integrating community-based child care centers into their pre-K programs.