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Our Kids are Worth the Investment: Parents Advocate for Early Ed & Child Care Funds

  ·  Nyki Salinas-Duda

Nearly 50 Chicago-area parents and advocates trekked to Springfield to participate in the Latino Policy Forum’s Early Childhood Education Advocacy Day on April 30. Representing El Hogar del Niño, Christopher House, Erie Neighborhood House, Gads Hill Center, Family Focus Nuestra Familia, El Valor, Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Through a Child’s Eyes, and the Carole Robertson Center, they traveled three hours down to the state capitol to ask legislators to protect and restore funding for early childhood education and child care programs.

Parents were prepped for the visit. An April 25 training coordinated by the Latino Policy Forum at El Valor’s Little Village location made sure parents were armed with information on the benefits of early childhood programs, like the fact that $1 invested in preschool programs yields a $7 return—and that despite those numbers, the State of Illinois slashed $25 million in early childhood funding last year. The required training gave parents the opportunity to ensure their experience in Springfield was a constructive one. They practiced their stories in front of an audience, crafted the “asks” or requests they’d be making of legislators, and learned strategies that would help them deal with the inevitable question: “Where are we going to get the money for this?”  

Catching an early-morning bus to spend a full day clomping through the capitol, chasing down lawmakers (and trying to convince them that your issue—more than those of the dozens of other advocates vying for their attention—is worth their time) may not sound like a good time to most, but the parents and advocates who journeyed to Springfield were vivacious and full of optimism, committed to their kids—and to advocating for their futures.

The parents’ confidence showed as they rehearsed their stories together on the bus, reminding themselves of the tips they’d learned at the training and excitedly chattering about the legislators they hoped to meet in Springfield.

As we rolled into Springfield, participants split into groups. I joined a mix of mothers and advocates led by Martin Torres, senior policy analyst for the Latino Policy Forum. At first, we met and spoke with representatives who were supportive of protecting early childhood funding, including Rep. Will Davis, who invited the group into his office to discuss strategies that could spur the Illinois legislature to action in the midst of a budget crisis. But not all the legislators would be as openly receptive to the parents’ requests around early education and child care funding. We learned that as we headed to the office of one representative.

The Representative was welcoming, happy to receive the group. But, as one mother said, the meeting didn’t go quite as expected. As advocates shared their stories, she countered their experiences with her own. Of her children, she told the moms, one hadn’t gone to preschool—and he turned out fine. She had left her job to be a stay-at-home mom to her kids, which is what mothers should do, she argued, adding that the culture that creates single motherhood needs to be changed, not the state’s budget priorities. Other important programs, like those that support homeless children, need that money, she told the group.  

Leaving the office, the mothers debriefed in the hallway, expressing the surprise they’d been too polite to voice in the representative’s office: “She quit her job to stay home with her kids? I’m a single parent, how am I supposed to do that? How would I take care of my kids?” Another chimed in: “She doesn’t know what it’s like because she’s never had to worry about money. She can afford to stay home with her kids or pay for child care.”

The experience underscored why Advocacy Day is such an important exercise. Without hearing the stories of people with fewer options for their children, those with more opportunities couldn’t realize that there are different realities. And while one representative was not as receptive as the mothers perhaps would have liked, the day was a success. Other lawmakers—including Representatives Sandra Pihos and Elizabeth Hernandez and Senator William Delgado—were open to the parents’ requests. Julie Smith, the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Office of the Governor, welcomed all the parents to squeeze into her office while Smith herself sang the praises of quality affordable early childhood education and childcare. She listened attentively while four mothers shared their children’s success stories.

The proof that funding for quality affordable early childhood education and child care is worth both protecting and restoring can be found in parents’ stories—stories of children developing advanced skills in reading and writing, managing speech impediments, and of parents having the time to further their own educations.

Quality affordable early childhood education and child care is a way for families—especially  low-income families, too many of which are Latino—to access the resources their children need to succeed, a means of leveling the playing field for all kids, which is why the funding for such programs is so important to protect. And from the stories parents shared with legislators, it’s worth the investment.

[Check out VIDEO of two mothers' reactions to their experiences in Springfield.]

Posted In: Education, Preschool