In a preschool classroom at a podium draped with Dr. Seuss decor, Illinois leaders spoke about the long-term benefits of investing in early childhood education. The group Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is supporting the $100 million increase in block grant funding for early childhood ed proposed in the governor's budget.
They were also there to read to the preschoolers.
Tim Carpenter is the state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. He says Winnebago County is well-served by state grants but says there are still plenty of opportunities to help families.
"These investments are shrewd, they only cost the state a little over $3,000 for a child enrolled in a half day program; probably a little more than double then after a full day," Carpenter said. "But it does cause $26,000 for an inmate in one of our state prisons."
Their report highlights a stat from the Chicago Child-Parent Centers that found students were 70 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime by age 18 if they were not a part of the center's early childhood programs.
The group wants lawmakers to increase funding to improve the infrastructure of schools providing early education.
"We have a $3.5 billion budget deficit this year, we have $15 billion of overall unpaid bills," said state Rep. John Cabello. "But when we look at the prioritizing of what we actually need to spend money on, this is one of the things we actually need to do."
The Rockford-area Republican has been a police officer and detective. He says early childhood funding helps reduce crime.
"When we look at how we're trying to redo the criminal justice system down in the General Assembly, we realize that this is a very important part of the overall redo of the justice system to be able to keep kids out of the criminal justice system," he said.
State Sen. Steve Stadelman (D-Rockford) wants the state to look at the bigger picture when it comes to paying for education.
"One thing government doesn't do a good job of is investing in the front end, and we'll find better outcomes in the back end," Stadelman said. "We tend to be so focused on this year as fiscal year issues that we forget that investing in the front end can really pay dividends down the road."
Teachers with afterschool programs are also asking the state for help. But they don't have the promise of more funding in this year's budget.
Susan Stanton is the network lead at Afterschool for Children and Teens or ACT Now, a statewide advocacy group. ACT Now presented at the State Board of Education's meeting last month.
"There's a huge focus from this administration and lots of folks in the education space on the early childhood sector, which is important and we're strong supporters of it," Stanton said. "But I think what that causes sometimes is that folks don't always think about what happens after that transition is made."
Stanton said the state has never made a large investment in after-school programs, unlike early childhood.
"How do we continue to support school-age kids outside of the early childhood space," she said, "so when they get to first through third grade, are there still those supports there? Are we protecting the investment we've made in those youth so far?"
She said it's more common that this kind of support can drop off after kids are old enough to go to school, and that Act Now and other advocates wish "after-school" was seen as an essential part of education.
There are other funding streams but Stanton says it's not enough.
"Over 400,000 youth in Illinois are unsupervised and unattended at the afterschool hours. And there are 700,000 kids who want to be in after-school programs," she said.
At the same time, some national funding exists through programs like the 21st Century Learning Centers initiative. But for the third year in a row, President Trump's budget proposes eliminating it.
Given its bipartisan support, Stanton says it's unlikely the program will be axed. If it was, estimates show Illinois after-school programs would lose more than $50 million.
Last year, 38% of after-school programs in the state used funding from the 21st Century Learning Center, according to ACT Now.
"I think one of the things we hear from programs sometimes is, 'Oh, the president's budget is just a proposal,' or, 'You know, he's cutting so many programs, there's no way all of that could happen,'" Stanton said. "I think that for us, we try to stay very vigilant. Because here in Illinois, we know how funding can change overnight."
Stanton refers to the 2015 cuts to Teen REACH after-school programs during the budget impasse that forced some to shut down.
Leaders say they plan to keep lobbying for legislation to secure support for these programs in Illinois.