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Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker was in the Quad-Cities on Wednesday, Feb. 22, to pitch his early childhood education plan – a multi-year initiative that he says will provide universal access to pre-school for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds, improve equity, enhance early intervention programs and bolster the state’s childcare workforce. Mr. Pritzker, along with Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and other state officials, made a mid-morning stop at Skip-a-Long Child Development Services in Rock Island as part of a statewide tour to publicize the plan, which he’s dubbed Smart Start Illinois. The governor’s proposed $250 million investment in fiscal year 2024 includes $75 million for the Early Childhood Block Grant program to create 5,000 new pre-K spots; $130 million for a program aimed at stabilizing childcare providers and giving workers a pay raise; and $40 million for early intervention efforts. Another $100 million is included in the governor’s long-term plan to help renovate and build new facilities, along with $70 million to expand the state’s childcare assistance program. All told, the governor’s office outlined investments that would amount to more than $430 million. Pritzker said Wednesday that the state’s budget situation has improved since he’s become governor and now is the time to make these long-term investments. “We’re here and this is our big opportunity,” he said. Over four years, the goal is to create 20,000 new pre-K spots. Leaders at Skip-a-Long, which has childcare locations and services throughout the Quad-Cities, said the additional investments would provide meaningful help to their operations, and to families in the area. Pat Allison, who is the site director at the Rock Island facility at 1609 4th St., said the organization has had to invest a lot of money in its current building, which is 50 years old. She said that it is in bad need of repair. “It would be best if we could get a new center, build a new center,” Ms. Allison said. She added that boosting pay for workers would help her address current workforce shortages and lead to opening three classrooms. That, she said, would mean serving 46 more kids, including 38 pre-school children. “I could fill those classrooms if I had more teaching staff,” she said. Being competitive with pay is a problem. Often, workers are lost to higher-paying employers, such as area school districts. Ms. Allison said that Skip-a-Long has advertised, attended community fairs and used social media to try to attract applicants, but not as many people are going into the child development field as they had previously. “It’s very hard. We’ve tried a little bit of everything,” she said. Marcy Mendenhall, the CEO of SAL Family and Community Services, before introducing the governor, said whether people have young children or not, this plan would benefit all Illinoisans. “This younger generation will be taking care of us in their twilight years. By investing in their education and care now, we will all have a brighter future,” she said. Republicans have argued that the governor’s $49.6 billion budget, which he outlined last week, will lead to tax increases or cuts in vital services. But Mr. Pritzker rejected the criticism Wednesday and said the question is whether Illinois has properly invested in early childhood education over the last 20 years, or in K-12 and higher education. “I would argue that we have not,” he said. Also joining Mr. Pritzker on Wednesday were Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms, and the mayors of Moline and East Moline, Sangeetha Rayapati and Reggie Freeman.