Knowledge Exchange Recap: Early Childhood Policy Priorities

Each month we’ll be reporting out on our Knowledge Exchanges, held as part of our Visiting Fellowship in Urban Poverty with Loyola University of Chicago’s Center on Urban Research and Learning (CURL). March’s discussion was lead by Gaylord Gieseke, President of Voices for Illinois Children, which recently release its annual Illinois Kids Count report examining the quality of life facing children and families throughout the state.

The recap below of the session’s conversation is provided courtesy of our Visiting Fellow.

Gaylord began the session by providing a brief overview of the report, sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This year’s report focused on access to healthcare and health disparities. T here is both good and bad news. The good news is that Illinois is among the top 5 states in the nation in terms of children’s healthcare coverage.

Access to healthcare has been expanded through the Medicaid, CHIP, and KIDCARE programs, and less than 4% of Illinois children are uninsured. The bad news is that in overall child wellbeing indicators, Illinois ranks 23rd in the nation, while it ranks in the top 12 wealthiest states. There are serious health disparities based on income, race and ethnicity because the quality of services vary by community, many low income parents have difficulty accessing available services, and the existing system does not adequately address special health care needs, such as mental illness and physical disabilities.

In order to improve the wellbeing of Illinois children, four areas need to be addressed: Early Childhood, Health Care, Family Economic Security and State Fiscal Policy.

Discussion Summary

What role do children’s issues currently play in the political dynamic of state and city government, and what are the key policy priorities for child advocates?

While the importance of early childhood has been widely acknowledged by key leaders—the Mayor of Chicago, the Governor’s Office, and President Obama have supported early childhood programs—politics are dominated by fiscal issues. For example, in the last four years, Illinois has lost 80 million dollars in early childhood funding, and we currently have 22,000 less children receiving services than we did in 2009. One of the most pressing issues for children is the revenue collapse which will result from the expiration of Illinois’ current tax rates on December 31, 2014. If this happens, the personal income tax will revert back to 3%, which would equate to a $1.5 billion revenue loss. With the combination of mandatory spending increases and revenue reductions, it is estimated that discretionary spending will be cut by $2.3 billion in FY2015 and double that in FY2016. This would lead to deep cuts in state education and human services funding.

A Better Illinois, a coalition of 450 community organizations and civic leaders (BPI is a member), has been advocating for a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive tax structure. Currently, Illinois is constitutionally forbidden to have anything but a flat tax. A bill to authorize a constitutional amendment would require a three-fifths vote in the General Assembly, and because it is an election year, it may be very difficult to gain legislative support.

On the federal level, another priority is the reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) program, which will expire in 2015. The CHIP program has contributed to the dramatic increase of insured children in Illinois. Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) might eventually replace the need for CHIP, during the early implementation stage is not clear how thoroughly that will happen. Since CHIP is working well and there are still many unanswered questions regarding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, child advocates are concerned that many children will lose access to services during the transition.

What strategies are being employed to avoid the revenue collapse?

In addition to the negative impacts on families and communities, Voices is making the argument that the revenue collapse will harm the economy because it will result in many lost jobs and an uneducated work force. There are also fiscal policy concerns—it is very likely that IL bond rates will drop due to fiscal uncertainty. Until May, the priority is to get the tax reform constitutional amendment on the November ballot. A Better Illinois is working to get people in touch with their legislators, and is doing polling on the issue to demonstrate voter support. Citizen Action, the Shriver Center, and several unions have taken the lead on this work. In an election year, legislators are hesitant to be on record publicly on a tax issue. Therefore, Voices is doing a lot of work in small groups, and has been reaching out to the small business community to build support. Finally, Voices has been working on a number of tax models to determine the costs and benefits of various tax rates, because should the tax reform amendment pass, the legislature would have to determine a new tax rate structure.

How are Illinois Children Doing?

  • In 2012, 21% of IL children and 34.5% of Chicago children lived below the poverty line
  • 31% of IL children live with parents who lack secure employment
  • 46% of IL children are not attending preschool
  • 67% of IL fourth graders are not proficient in reading
  • 80% of IL high school students and 68% of Chicago high school students graduate

Illinois 2013 Kidscount Profile, Annie E. Casey Foundation
2014 Kidscount: Child Health Matters, VOICES for IL Children

How do the various children’s issues (poverty, health, education) and their champions align with one another? Are these policy issues siloed?

Silos are breaking down in the Illinois early childhood field. Today, collaborations are taking place between the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. There are also partnerships between various levels of government, and between the public and private sectors. Home visiting is a success story. It is a growing field that has gained national recognition and the State of Illinois has secured millions in Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) funds to expand home visiting services to pregnant moms, infants and toddlers. (BPI’s Angela Bailey and Kim Zalent are both members of the Illinois Home Visiting Task Force which is part of the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development). BPI has established a presence in the early childhood systems work, made possible as a result of its Altgeld-Riverdale Early Learning Initiative.

In health care, the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Partnership has been very successful at using a public health model to redefine mental health service delivery systems, although this work has been impacted by deep budget cuts (about 30%) in the last few years. Voices has also been working on a project to redefine the mental health services that are provided to children in families receiving Medicaid. The State of Illinois has applied for a Medicaid waiver which will enable the reallocation of hospitalization funds to prevention and family support programs.

Illinois is one of the first states to establish standards for socio-emotional learning, and now several Illinois school districts are developing implementation strategies. A related effort is the work of the Illinois Trauma Coalition, which brings together state agencies, researchers, trainers, medical professionals, advocates, and family groups to clearly define the impacts of trauma, to develop effective treatment strategies, and to provide trainings on trauma informed practices.

If the current income tax rate expires as scheduled on December 31, 2014, Illinois will suffer a revenue loss of at least 2.3 billion dollars in FY2015 and twice that amount in FY2016.

“Unless we maintain stable and sustainable revenue, programs like child care assistance, early childhood education, after school programs, child protection services, violence prevention, and a wide range of community based services will be in jeopardy.”

-Voices for Illinois Children Fact Sheet, FY 2015 Revenue Collapse: What’s at Stake

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