The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s new policy report, The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, sounds the alarm that the nation is failing to invest enough in a child’s early years. The report calls for integrated and comprehensive approaches to meet the needs of all children from birth through age eight. Both state and federal policies must embrace a range of evidence-based programs and interventions to help young children succeed.

Gaylord Gieseke, president of Voices for Illinois Children, praised the report and emphasized its relevance for Illinois:  “These first eight years serve as a vital foundation for children’s success in school and later in work and life. Unfortunately, too many Illinois children don’t get off to a strong start, due to economic, language, and other barriers.” 

The First Eight Years presents three major sets of recommendations:

  • Support parents so they can effectively care and provide for their children.
  • Increase access to high-quality birth through age eight programs, beginning with investments that target low-income children.
  • Develop comprehensive, integrated programs and data systems to address all aspects of a child’s development and support their transition to elementary school and related programs for school-age children.

Illinois has made significant progress in many of the areas identified in the report including:

Supports for Parents

The Illinois Child Care Assistance Program provides access to affordable, stable child care services, enabling low-income parents to maintain employment, while offering developmental opportunities for their children. 

Home visiting programs such as Healthy Families Illinois and Parents Too Soon offer a broad range of preventive services and supports for at-risk families with young children or those expecting children.  

High-Quality Early Learning Programs

Research has shown significant improvements in school-readiness skills among children participating in state-funded Preschool for All programs.

The State Board of Education recently adopted an updated set of Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards, which are an enhancement of standards first published in 2002.

The Early Intervention program provides a broad array of services and supports for families with children under age 3 who have diagnosed disabilities or develop­mental delays, as well as those who are at risk for developmental delays.

Comprehensive, Integrated Strategies

Over the past year, Illinois was awarded two federal Race-to-the-Top Early Learning Challenge grants. The funds are being used to achieve greater integration across multiple funding streams and agencies, support local collaborations focused on serving the most at-risk children, and improve the quality of early learning and development programs.

Voices is part of the leadership of the Illinois Early Learning Council, a collaborative effort to fulfill the vision of a statewide, high-quality, accessible, and comprehensive system of early childhood education and care.

Gieseke noted that the recommendations in the Casey Foundation report are an important complement to Voices’ Great at Eight Policy Framework, which was published last year.  “Unfortunately,” she said, “the Great Recession and the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis have stalled progress and eroded investments in early childhood programs.” For example, as a result of budget cuts, the number of children participating in state-funded preschool programs dropped from more than 95,000 in FY 2009 to about 74,000 in FY 2013.

The erosion of state investments in early childhood has occurred during a period of increasing hardship for families with children. The most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that more than 20% of Illinois children lived in poverty in 2012, compared with 15% ten years earlier.

The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success includes data on children from birth to age eight for every state, the District of Columbia, and the nation. Additional information is available in the KIDS COUNT Data Center, which also contains the most recent national, state, and local data on hundreds of indicators of child well-being. The Data Center allows users to create rankings, maps, and graphs for use in publications and on websites, and to view real-time information on mobile devices.