Illinois Governor Approves Creation of New Department of Early Childhood

SPRINGFIELD – Governor JB Pritzker endorsed legislation on Tuesday establishing a novel cabinet-level state agency exclusively focused on early childhood education and development.

The Department of Early Childhood, set to launch in July 2026, will assume control of programs currently dispersed among three state agencies, encompassing funding for preschool programs, child care centers, and the licensure of day care centers.

Addressing an audience at a preschool in Chicago during the bill signing ceremony, Pritzker emphasized that the unified agency will facilitate easier access to essential services for new parents.

“It’s a challenging task balancing all parental responsibilities,” he noted. “Navigating a complex bureaucracy for the care their children deserve shouldn’t be an added burden.”

Pritzker originally presented his proposal for an integrated agency last autumn while lawmakers convened their annual fall veto session, coinciding with his issuance of an executive order establishing an Office of Early Childhood within the governor’s office. 

The executive order instructed the Department of Human Services, the Department of Children and Family Services, and the Illinois State Board of Education to commence devising a transition strategy to shift the administration of their early childhood initiatives to a new agency.

The formal pursuit to establish the novel agency was incorporated into Pritzker’s budget submission to the General Assembly in February, alongside a second consecutive year of augmented funding for these programs under Pritzker’s Smart Start initiative.

As per the initiative, the new agency will absorb the Early Childhood Block Grant program from the State Board of Education, financing the Preschool for All and Prevention Initiative programs; the Child Care Assistance Program, Home Visiting programs, and Early Intervention Services currently overseen by the Department of Human Services; and the licensure of day care facilities managed by the Department of Children and Family Services.

The legislation authorizing the novel agency, Senate Bill 1, garnered unanimous approval in the Senate in April and received bipartisan endorsement in the House last month, with a vote of 93-18.

“A child’s foundation for success and well-being commences at birth,” articulated Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, the primary Senate sponsor of the bill. “As a state, it is our responsibility to offer the requisite support and resources to establish such stability. The establishment of this distinct agency will pioneer our transition to a comprehensive, trauma-informed strategy to meet the diverse needs of children.”

The legislative deliberations centered largely on the initial expenditures associated with launching a new state agency. Lawmakers earmarked $14 million for the upcoming fiscal year to cover preliminary startup expenses, including the recruitment of executive personnel and the establishment of new office premises.

However, administrative officials refrained from projecting the annual operating cost of the new agency once fully functional and whether those administrative expenses would surpass current state expenditures.

In response to queries from journalists on Tuesday, Pritzker shunned providing specific cost projections but inferred that consolidating the programs into a singular agency could yield efficiencies and cost reductions. Despite that, he admonished those criticizing the establishment of new state agencies for potentially burdening taxpayers.

“I genuinely believe it won’t,” Pritzker contended. “There are tangible efficiencies in consolidating programs currently dispersed across different departments and amalgamating them all in one place.”

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