Earlier today, Illinois Governor Pritzker delivered his State of the State Address, highlighting Smart Start Illinois, which is a historic investment in the state’s early care and education (ECE) system. Smart Start launched last year and is already improving access to quality child care and other critical services for young children and their families, while providing long overdue support for professionals working in the system.

This year, Governor Pritzker is seeking the legislature’s support for a $150 million increase for the second year of the initiative, bringing the total investment to $400 million. Key investments include: 

  • $200 million for Smart Start workforce initiatives, including Smart Start Workforce Grants, to help child care providers meet a new, higher wage floor for their staff and stabilize the field. 
  • $75 million increase in the Early Childhood Block Grant to increase quality and create new slots in preschool deserts. 
  • $13 million to begin the state’s transition to a unified early childhood agency – the Department of Early Childhood. 

Afton has a front row seat to Illinois’ efforts, working closely with state leaders to thoughtfully engage stakeholders in a way that centers equity and the human experience while also bringing our expertise in data analysis and cost-modeling for accurate and strategic allocation of resources. We are proud to support the design of the Smart Start Workforce Grants, ECBG allocation, Early Intervention payment reform, and the transition to a unified early childhood agency. 

Smart Start Workforce Grants

Nationwide, ECE staff are drastically under-compensated for the important work they do, with an average wage of about $13/hour. Low compensation means child care programs struggle to recruit and retain qualified staff and families cannot find child care for their children. IL is one of a small number of states that has committed significant resources to address this issue. If approved by the legislature, funding for the Smart Start Workforce Grants (SSWG) would build on the previous investments.  

Workforce Grants are an innovative approach to address the ECE workforce shortage, using the state’s general revenue to supplement ECE teacher salaries. Child care programs that participate in SSWG will receive funding to pay their classroom staff at least a base wage (the “wage floor”). In other words, these programs will be able to meet a higher wage floor for their staff without raising tuition for their families.

Afton’s Role

Afton supports the planning and design of the SSWG through facilitation of robust stakeholder engagement efforts that include ongoing advisory committee engagement, provider focus groups and surveys. We create opportunities for the state to meaningfully engage the providers who may benefit from these grants and ensure that the unique perspectives of Spanish-speaking providers, home-based providers, and others who have had less access to grant opportunities are considered in design and implementation. 

Afton also led the development of IL’s child care cost model, a tool that helped determine the cost to meet the wage floor across different program types and regions to ensure that grant amounts are sufficient to cover the costs of raising wages. This critical support helped determine the parameters of the program so that SSWG can reach as many child care programs as possible within the budget.  

Early Intervention 

Early Intervention (EI) provides crucial support for young children experiencing or at risk of developmental delays. Unfortunately, payment rates have not kept up with inflation in recent years, straining the system and negatively impacting recruitment and retention among the EI workforce, which includes service coordinators, interpreters, and therapists (such as developmental, speech, occupational, and physical therapists).  

Afton’s Role 

Afton is supporting an innovative project to develop a cost model for Illinois’ EI system and consider options for payment reform. To date, hundreds of EI practitioners and families have participated in focus groups and surveys that Afton facilitated to give their input on changes they hope to see in the system. Using this input, Afton will work with the Bureau of Early Intervention to develop a cost model that reflects the true cost of providing EI services across the state. Afton is also supporting state leaders in considering short- and long-term improvements to its approach to payment to improve access to high-quality EI services for children and families.  

Early Childhood Block Grant 

As a critical component in this system, the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG) provides funding for early childhood and family education programs and services that help young children enter school ready to learn.  The Illinois investments are intended to increase access to programs, with a focus on preschool “deserts” – regions that lack access to ECE programming – and support quality improvement across new and existing programs.  

 Afton’s Role 

To address inequitable access to high quality programs, Afton has partnered with ISBE to identify and prioritize preschool deserts for new ECBG allocations. Afton is also supporting ISBE to develop a “cost model” that informs equitable funding allocation decisions. Afton will leverage quantitative data and engage stakeholders to inform the cost model. 

IL Governance Transition 

So often, early childhood systems and structures are designed around funding streams, resulting in a patchworked system that places the burden on families to navigate a dizzying maze of programs and services. Last fall, at the recommendation of the Afton-facilitated IL Commission on Equitable Early Childhood Education and Care Funding, Gov. Pritzker initiated the transition to a new, unified Department of Early Childhood. The transition will provide the state with a unique opportunity to thoughtfully redesign and rebuild an equitable, accessible, family-centered early childhood system. The effort will require reorganization of programs and funding streams that currently span three separate agencies under the new umbrella. 

Afton’s Role 

Over the next three years, Afton will collaborate with several state agencies, state and local advisory bodies, and communities – particularly those that have been historically underresourced and underserved – to inform the design of the new unified state agency with a racial equity, family-centered lens. Given the complex funding streams involved, Afton will also leverage our deep funding design expertise to identify equitable funding strategies that support the redesigned system. 


In IL and across the country, Afton is excited to collaborate with those who are most impacted by challenges in the early childhood system to create solutions that will work with appropriately allocated resources. Illinois’ work has tremendous potential to serve as a model for other states. We invite you to stay tuned as these initiatives advance and we analyze the impact of these innovations. We will continue to share our learning and resources that other states may find useful as they explore policy change and investments that support the best outcomes for children and families.