Immigrants, Pre-K, and Chicago Education Politics

Chicago has—other than maybe New York City—the most punishing education politics in the United States. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in 2011, he inherited a struggling school system and a city with deep budget problems. Sometimes in response to these difficulties, and sometimes in addition to them, he pushed hard for a series of controversial education reforms that most observers agree made his reelection campaign this year much tougher.

Perhaps that’s why, on the heels of his successful (if fraught) reelection victory last month, Emanuel is pushing a less controversial education initiative. Several weeks ago, Emanuel’s office announced a new grants program under the heading, “Early Learning for Immigrant Families.” The program will run for two years and offer annual grants of up to $75,000 “to design and implement unique programming aimed at reducing some of the most prevalent barriers to immigrant family participation in comprehensive early childhood education and development programs.” As far as politics go, early education investments are about as ideologically uncaptured as education policies get.

The program builds on existing city initiatives to expand pre-K access and support core goals in Chicago’s “New Americans Plan,” and has a budget of $325,000. Specifically, the grants aim to:

  1. Increase the number of immigrant families enrolled in early childhood programming; and
  2. Deepen the engagement of enrolled immigrant families in the program.
This (admittedly small) effort is encouraging, given that pre-K’s political popularity sometimes leads policymakers to propose expansions without building in strategies to maximize these investments’ effectiveness. That is, “more pre-K access” is a more reasonable framing for initial public debates than “less pre-K access,” but it’s not really the right framework for making good early education policy. Instead, we should be asking how we can make increased pre-K access work as well as possible for as many students as possible—with special attention directed towards those students who research shows benefit the most from participation.

This is also good timing, as Chicago is in the midst of a pre-K expansion. Given longstanding evidence that children of immigrants often enroll in early education programs at lower rates than their native-born peers, initiatives like this one are a step in the right direction to ensure that access to Chicago’s pre-K programs is more equitable.

Experts suggest that immigrant families are less likely to send their children to early education programs because they are unfamiliar with how schools and the broader education system works in the United States. Low family literacy levels and linguistic barriers (when early education programs are publicized primarily in English) may also contribute. Chicago’s new grants should target these specific needs. “Successful respondents,” the city says,

will be able to demonstrate their ability to engage immigrant families; support immigrant families’ knowledge of and participation in comprehensive early childhood and development programs; and work with early childhood providers in facilitating families’ enrollment and retention in early childhood programs.
While the primary goal of this program is—and should be—supporting educational equity and effectiveness for their own sakes, there’s a broader context worth mentioning. The long-term economic viability of Midwestern communities like Chicago is deeply intertwined with their ability to attract, train, and retain immigrant families. Supporting early education access for children of immigrants could be a powerful lever in support of this broader imperative.

It’s been clear for a while that pre-K “is having its moment as a favored cause for politicians and interest groups who ordinarily have trouble agreeing on the time of day” (see here for more). In a recent column, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof even suggested that early education’s political palatability was such that it warrants calling a momentary truce in the rest of the education reform wars (something I’ve discussed many times before). But if pre-K can salve Chicago’s deep edu-politics wounds, perhaps pre-K’s political “moment” is deeper and more powerful than anyone has realized.

--Note: This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team’s work. Subscribe to our newsletter (click “Education Policy”) on this page.

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Author:

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.