Garcia slams Emanuel's prekindergarten initiative (Sun-Times)

Posted By Steve Bogira

Outside a south-side child care center, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia yesterday blasted Mayor Rahm Emanuel's use of social impact bonds to fund an expansion of prekindergarten in Chicago.

Garcia, the Cook County commissioner who faces Emanuel in a runoff election Tuesday, said the pre-K deal was more likely to enrich the politically connected lenders who have contributed to the mayor's reelection campaign than it was to significantly expand pre-K.

The mayor's initiative, approved in November by the City Council by a vote of 42-5, is designed to enroll 2,600 children in half-day pre-K over four years. Goldman Sachs, Northern Trust, and the Pritzker Family Foundation provided $17 million in bonds, and could ultimately get $34.5 million back.

Social impact bonds are a fairly new method for government to expand programs when public budgets are tight. In this case, they allowed the mayor to expand pre-K in time for his reelection campaign. "There is nothing that's more important than our kids," Emanuel saidwhen his office announced the deal.

The investors only make money if certain targets are met. The targets in the pre-K program are increased readiness for kindergarten, improved third-grade literacy, and reduced need for special education services—all of which would save the city money while earning it for the investors as well. A key in such programs are the specific benchmarks. Critics of the Chicago pre-K effort maintain the benchmarks are too low.

Among the critics is Bright Future Chicago, a coalition pushing for universal early child care and full-day preschool, whose member groups include the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare Illinois, two of Garcia's biggest backers. Members of Bright Future Chicago joined Garcia yesterday outside the child care center.

Emanuel's campaign notes that more than 4,000 pre-K slots have been added citywide since the mayor took office. Bright Future Chicago maintains that enrollment in pre-K, however, has actually declined, and even the mayor's campaign cites an enrollment increase of only 800 citywide, despite the 4,000 additional slots.

I asked the mayor's campaign yesterday why enrollment had only increased by 800 (according to its figures); the campaign didn't respond. Bright Future Chicago members told me parents are reluctant to enroll their children in pre-K because of the logistical difficulties of combining work and child care schedules with programs that are only half-day.

The vast majority of Chicago Public Schools pre-K programs are half-day, which usually means only two and a half hours.

The benefits of pre-K are undermined by chronic absenteeism, which is particularly common among students from high-poverty neighborhoods, according to a 2014 report by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Many of the parents interviewed for that report expressed a desire for a longer program. They said their child's brief pre-K day was difficult to plan around, and that scheduling problems often led to absenteeism. The report noted that chronic absenteeism in preschool sets a "detrimental pattern that often continues into elementary school": students who are chronically absent in preschool are five times more likely than other students to be chronically absent in second grade.

Emanuel has vowed to triple the number of full-day pre-K programs in his second term, increasing the number of kids in full-day pre-K from 2,000 to 6,000. That would fall far short of a universal program. It's not clear how many three- and four-year-olds in Chicago might enroll in a universal program, but this year 29,000 children are enrolled in a CPS kindergarten.

When I asked Garcia yesterday how he'd pay for universal full-day pre-K, he didn't offer a plan. But he told me in a statement that he'd steer clear of "costly privatization funding schemes that end up thwarting our ability over the long term to fund wider access" to pre-K and other early childhood programs.