Measure to create new state agency for childhood services now on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk

The Illinois House on Thursday passed Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s initiative to consolidate early childhood services under a single agency, paving the way for the creation of a new state Department of Early Childhood.

“We can make early childhood simpler, better and fairer,” Democratic Rep. Mary Beth Canty of Arlington Heights, the bill’s main backer in the House, said Thursday. The state Senate passed the bill in a 56-0 vote, and it now heads to the governor’s desk.

The bill is part of Pritzker’s suite of initiatives aimed at enhancing early childhood services in Illinois. The governor has also pushed for greater preschool funding in order to make the state, in his words, “the best place to raise young children.”

The new agency would be an umbrella for early intervention for children with disabilities and developmental delays from the Department of Human Services; preschool programs overseen by the Illinois State Board of Education; and day care licensing responsibilities handled by the beleaguered Department of Children and Family Services.

The new department would streamline access to services for families as well as management for the state, Canty said. Under the legislation, the agency would be created this July and oversee programs starting in July 2026, after a two-year transition period.

The bill, which passed 93-18, makes no immediate changes to early childhood programs in the state.

After the transition period, the goal is for services to be moved with “no interruption to services, jobs or funding,” Canty said.

Republicans including Rep. Blaine Wilhour of Beecher City during House debate Thursday questioned the idea of creating the agency before fully figuring out the logistics and budget.

“This is a cabinet-level government agency and we have no idea what it’s going to cost,” he said.

Canty responded that the idea of the agency has been studied by a recent task force. Consolidating the services into one department could also eventually lead to cost savings for the government, Canty said, though she declined to speculate on the future budgets for the departments involved.

Pritzker’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which is pending legislative approval, includes $13 million for first year of the transition. Those funds would support efforts to evaluate and bring together systems among the three current agencies, such as facilities and data infrastructure, Canty said.

“Getting to our earliest learners … is the best investment I believe we can make in the root causes of the challenges that face our state,” Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago said Thursday.

DCFS in particular has been the target of recent conversations on restructuring. Lawmakers and advocates have long discussed the idea of reassigning day care licensing to another agency to allow DCFS to better focus on its primary child welfare responsibilities, such as abuse and neglect investigations, especially since Republicans have been critical of the agency under Pritzker’s watch.

Earlier this year, Pritzker’s new head of DCFS, Heidi Mueller, said siphoning off day care licensing responsibilities from DCFS would be helpful to the agency because that’s not really part of “central function” of the agency.

“It allows us to really focus on kind of our core mission and function,” Mueller said at an unrelated event in Chicago in March, shortly after her confirmation by the state Senate. “As a leader, my role is going to be ensuring that there’s a smooth transition,” she added.

House Republican leader Tony McCombie of Savanna, who has been critical of Pritzker’s handling of DCFS, was among about 20 GOP House members who voted in favor of the legislation on Thursday. In a statement, she said she supports the creation of the agency “because reforms I have advocated for, especially some regarding DCFS, are in this bill.”

“Much more work remains to keep children and workers safe, so we must continue to advocate for reforms that hold these agencies accountable,” McCombie said.

The plan builds on Pritzker’s “Smart Start Illinois” initiative, a program funded with $250 million in the current budget that aims to improve access to child care and early childhood education. Among other elements, it calls for the addition of 20,000 slots to existing state-funded preschool programs over the course of the governor’s current term.

In the weeks leading up to his February address for the upcoming budget year, Pritzker traversed the state to tout the childhood services agency initiative. On the social media platform X on Thursday, Pritzker indicated he looks forward to signing the measure into law, thanking Canty and other advocates for “making services simpler, better, and fairer for children and their families in Illinois.”