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House gives OK to new state agency focused on early childhood programs

Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, pictured Thursday during House floor debate of Senate Bill 1, which would create a new state agency dubbed the Department of Early Childhood.
Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Campbell
Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, pictured Thursday during House floor debate of Senate Bill 1, which would create a new state agency dubbed the Department of Early Childhood.

The Illinois House gave final passage Thursday to a bill establishing a new cabinet-level state agency whose mission will be to provide a kind of one-stop shop for services focusing on early childhood development and education.

By the time it’s fully operational in 2026, the new Department of Early Childhood will administer programs currently spread across three agencies.

Among those are the Early Childhood Block Grants for preschools, now administered by the State Board of Education; subsidized child care, home visits and early intervention services administered by the Department of Human Services; and licensing of day care providers, which is now handled by the Department of Children and Family Services.

“We want to make a better Illinois,” Rep. Mary Beth Canty, D-Arlington Heights, the chief House sponsor of the bill, said during debate on the bill Thursday afternoon. “The way that we do our federal funding, our state funding for families, early education providers, etc. – it is scattershot across these three agencies. We see duplication of efforts, duplication of forms, and that means that we, in some cases, are not getting as many dollars into the programs that we rightfully need.”

Gov. JB Pritzker first announced plans to form a new agency in October, just as lawmakers were beginning their fall veto session. At that time, he signed an executive order directing agencies to start preparing for a potential consolidation and naming a transition director for the consolidation process.

The legislation that has now cleared the General Assembly, Senate Bill 1, provides the legal authority to begin setting up the new agency. It calls for hiring a director and key administrative staff to begin what is expected to be a two-year process of shifting programs, personnel, and funding from their current agencies to the new one.

That initial cost, estimated at about $13.1 million, is expected to be part of the budget for the next fiscal year, which lawmakers will finalize over the next few weeks.

But some Republicans expressed frustration that the Pritzker administration couldn’t provide an estimate of how much the new agency will cost per year once it’s fully operational in 2026, and questioned whether creating a new agency wouldn’t be more expensive than leaving the programs in their existing agencies.

“We’re creating an entire government agency here, guys,” Rep. Blaine Wilhour, R-Beecher City, said during floor debate. “This is a cabinet level agency, and we have no idea what it’s going to cost.”

Supporters of the bill argued the new costs would be minimal because the new agency’s job will be to administer existing programs that the state is already funding, and some argued that combining those programs into a single agency could create efficiencies that will save the state money in the long run.

“And it’s also possible that we may make better use of federal funds that we receive that support these programs,” Canty said.

The bill passed the House by a vote of 93-18. It previously passed the Senate on April 12 on a unanimous 56-0 vote. It next goes to Pritzker for his signature.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.