Before 7 AM on weekdays, working parents start dropping off their children at the preschool building of Lake Shore Schools at 5611 N. Clark. Of the 400 kids enrolled in the private institution, 180 are preschoolers, and many of them are taught by people like Marilyn Del Valle, the lead teacher for a class of 14 three-year-olds.

On a recent morning Del Valle asked a boy in a blue sweatshirt, “How many days are there in a week?” Seven, he replied. She directed the children to look outside and tell her what the weather was like. It’s cloudy, they concluded. The kids got a bathroom break, then drifted over to the painting easel, the doll area, or the low table where Del Valle showed them how to draw straight lines.

Like 63 percent of Illinois preschool teachers, Del Valle doesn’t have a college degree. But if a task force appointed by Governor George Ryan has its way, she’ll have to get one if she wants to go on being a lead teacher.

The task force wants to give every three- and four-year-old in Illinois free access to preschool, and if enacted, the new program would be the most ambitious universal preschool program in the nation–the few other programs that exist cover only four-year-olds. It would also bolster Ryan’s reputation as a good-government type. “It could be as much a key to his legacy as the death-penalty moratorium,” says Jerry Stermer, executive director of Voices for Illinois Children and a task force member. But the program, which could hurt independent operations like Lake Shore, faces lots of hurdles–including finding a lot of new, properly certified teachers.

Interest in universal preschool has been increasing because of research showing that early instruction leads to higher academic achievement. One such study, led by social-work professor Arthur Reynolds of the University of Wisconsin, has tracked children born in 1980 who attended preschool programs in federally funded centers in Chicago. The study shows that these kids were less likely to be held back in school than kids who didn’t attend preschool, more likely to finish high school, and less likely to be arrested for violence. It concluded that for every dollar invested in preschoolers there’s a seven-dollar payoff–because the state incurs lower special-education and law-enforcement costs, and it gets more in taxes because the kids earn more over their lifetimes.

Several states already have programs, and more are considering them. In the early 90s Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia, made universal preschool a focus of his administration, and by 1995 he’d made lottery money available to allow any four-year-old in the state to get six and a half hours of daily instruction. Three years later Oklahoma school districts began offering either two and a half or six hours of instruction to all four-year-olds, and New York State is now phasing in a program that gives four-year-olds at least two and a half hours daily.

In 1998 George Ryan ran for governor promising to expand preschool programs, and he soon assigned the issue to a policy group called Futures for Kids, chaired by his wife Lura Lynn; at a conference last year the group put universal preschool for both three- and four-year-olds at the top of its list of goals. Last April, Ryan appointed his wife to lead the 35-member Task Force on Universal Access to Pre-School with the charge to create “a five-year blueprint, with cost estimates, for achieving the goal of quality early childhood opportunities for all three to five year olds whose parents or guardians want them to participate.”

The task force members–among them legislators, state officials, academics, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan, and Elmhurst’s chief of police–divided themselves into four subcommittees, then held hearings throughout the state. Their report, scheduled to be released in a few weeks, will likely recommend that preschoolers be offered two and a half hours a day in a classroom, that the state have more curriculum oversight, that parents be more involved, that school directors have better credentials, and that lead teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree in early-childhood education. (They’re not the only ones concerned about setting higher standards for preschools; at a press conference on January 9, Mayor Daley said there was a need for a new assessment program: “We have to set some form of standard for all these early-childhood facilities–for-profit, not-for-profit, and public.”

The mandated degree presents teachers like Marilyn Del Valle with a problem. The current standard for preschool instructors in centers such as Lake Shore Schools is either two years of college and some child-development courses, a year of college and a year of experience, or certification from a national licensing organization based on workshops, college courses, and tests they’ve taken.

Del Valle doesn’t meet any of those standards. A 41-year-old native of Puerto Rico, she took business and paralegal courses before coming to Lake Shore Schools as an assistant teacher in 1987. But, she says, “I learned a lot from the teachers over me.” She recently began studying for an associate’s degree in child development at Saint Augustine College, a small school in Uptown affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and though she hasn’t earned enough credits yet to qualify as a lead teacher under the current standards, she functions as one. Beata Garcia, a diminutive 73-year-old who taught high school in the Philippines, is the official local teacher in Del Valle’s classroom, though in reality she functions as Del Valle’s assistant. “She gives good guidance to Miss Marilyn,” explains Marsha Engquist, director of Lake Shore Schools. “Marilyn has experience and interest, and she cares about the children.”

Engquist, who has a bachelor’s in elementary education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and two of her staff set Lake Shore’s preschool curriculum, which she describes as “hands-on and thematic.” Every morning a rubber bin full of projects is dropped off in each preschool classroom. Del Valle gently encourages and disciplines her charges as they work on their projects, and she says she’s always ready to put on a tape, shimmy around the room, and get the kids dancing. “At my house you’re going to hear music from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed,” she says. “That’s just the way I was brought up.”

Yet Del Valle admits that she tends to minimize reading aloud to her class, even though many preschool authorities see that as key to language development. “I’ll usually read a story for five minutes before nap time,” she says.

Some task force members might see that as a reason preschool lead teachers should be required to have a bachelor’s in early-childhood education. Barbara Bowman, outgoing president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in early-childhood education, says, “The fact is that teachers who have BA degrees in early childhood do more to facilitate better outcomes for children, to pick up on their interests and encourage their intellectual abilities, than people who don’t. The research on this is very robust.”

Engquist isn’t convinced. “Just having a degree doesn’t give you common sense, an understanding of children,” she says. “I remember having a certified teacher here who was taking care of ten children. One of the kids was jumping off the table, and the teacher said, ‘How do I stop him?’ How about saying no or providing activities that interest him? There are hundreds of [noncertified] teachers out there who are well qualified and capable. Educators may dismiss us as baby-sitters, but we’re carrying the burden for thousands of kids.”

Of course, Engquist might have a harder time keeping staff if she had to hire certified teachers. Del Valle puts in nine and a half hours every weekday year-round at Lake Shore, yet earns only $18,000 in salary–though she, unlike many uncertified teachers, does get benefits. By contrast, the average certified teacher in a prekindergarten operated by the public schools makes nearly $39,000 and puts in fewer hours over a shorter year. Del Valle is well aware of the disparity. “I’m a single parent with a nine-year-old son, and I want the best for him,” she says. “That’s why I’m going to college now, for a better future. I’d hate to leave Lake Shore and my coworkers, but the pay is too low here.”

Engquist also worries that if the proposal is enacted she’ll lose pupils. “If parents see there’s a public school down the block–and it’s free, and they can arrange a schedule for the rest of the time–they won’t send their kids to Lake Shore,” she says. “If I lose my three- and four-year-olds I’m going to have to raise costs for everyone else.” Like many for-profit centers, Lake Shore uses the tuition for three- and four-year-olds to help pay the higher expenses of baby and toddler care–Lake Shore takes in children as young as two.

Many of these for-profit institutions–which provide 20 percent of all center-based care in Illinois–are already in a precarious spot; Lake Shore clears less than five percent profit a year. To survive they frequently depend on public funds in the form of state vouchers or contracts. But vouchers don’t cover all the costs, and parents who get them are often asked to pay a share of the tuition based on their income. Lake Shore asks for $4 to $228 a month, but the school often can’t collect. For-profits also must pay taxes, and they can’t qualify for foundation grants or do major fund-raising.

Of course, given that the task force will probably recommend that the public schools offer only two and a half hours of instruction a day, the children of working parents will need to find care before and after. Margie Wallen, now the policy coordinator for universal preschool, says that in some cases children will shuttle from a center or a home day-care provider to a public preschool and then back. “That is absolutely a model that will happen,” she says. “It depends on what the community wants.”

But the task force would prefer to see a less disruptive model, something like the early-childhood partnerships Chicago’s Board of Education has with some 60 preschools, including a half dozen for-profits. Under these partnerships, begun a decade ago, the board gives money to the centers to hire teachers certified in early-childhood education to work with classroom instructors like Del Valle. North Avenue Day Nursery in Wicker Park, an early partner in the program, employs two certified teachers who each float between two classes of 35 to 40 youngsters, helped by noncertified instructors and assistants; the children never have to go off-site. “This kicks everything up a level,” says Steve Koll, the nursery’s executive director. “The [certified teachers] work one-on-one with the children, and they also train the other teachers.”

In New York such partnerships were originally intended to handle 10 percent of all preschoolers in the state-funded programs, but they now handle 60 percent. “It’s been the strongest component of what we do, a catalyst for change,” says Cynthia Gallagher, coordinator of universal prekindergarten in New York, “and no center-based program that I know of has been put out of business.” But Lynn White–executive director of the National Child Care Association, whose members are all for-profit centers–reports that her members lost 20,000 students when Georgia instituted universal preschool, despite numerous partnership contracts.

Engquist likes the idea of partnerships. “It won’t be easy,” she says, “but it can be done.” She thought about applying to be part of a Chicago early-childhood partnership three years ago. “But I didn’t have time to fill out the paperwork,” she says. “It’s not like we have grant writers sitting around here.”

Ultimately, no partnerships are possible if Illinois can’t find the funding. Many preschool programs are now paid for under the federal Head Start program, under the state’s voucher and contract programs for centers and home-care providers (which help children through age 12), and under separate programs for special education and at-risk children. All these programs, including those for older children, cost $1.3 billion a year, according to figures from the state board of education and the Department of Human Services.

Yet Voices for Illinois Children estimates that there are now more than 100,000 three- and four-year-olds in the state who aren’t in any publicly supported or private preschool program. To cover them–and to hire an estimated 7,000 certified teachers for their classrooms–would run “in the hundreds of millions,” according to Voices’ Jerry Stermer. (Policy coordinator Margie Wallen says she can’t provide the task force’s estimate until its report is released.)

That kind of money will be hard to find now, given the weak economy and the costs associated with the devastation of September 11. Those problems have already forced New York State to cut back its program; it had planned to lay out an extra $500 million for four-year-olds, but Governor George Pataki recently capped the amount at $225 million.

State legislators are dubious about the prospects for universal preschooling anytime soon. “This is a great idea, but where are we going to find the resources for it?” says Daniel Cronin, the Republican chairman of the senate education committee. “This is a pretty bad year to take up a proposal like this.” One task-force member who wanted to be anonymous agrees: “Unfortunately this is badly timed. September 11 put the quash on this. The report is probably going to end up on the shelf.” Other observers wonder whether Ryan, now a lame duck, would be able to push through the legislation anyway.

Wallen is more hopeful. She points out that the plan is slated for a ten-year roll-out, suggesting that universal preschooling can be put in place gradually. Stermer too is guardedly optimistic. “Before we had the RTA or Metra we didn’t have a comprehensive strategy for public transportation, but then Governor Ogilvie put together a plan,” he says. “That’s the kind of vision we have here. This is not an easy task, but visionary ideas have to start someplace.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.