Bipartisan legislative panel examines ins and outs of lobbying for better early childhood policies

Seminar enables Erikson’s Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellows to get insights into early childhood advocacy from many different perspectives, including Illinois lawmakers.

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From left: Illinois Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-33rd) and Illinois Rep. William Davis (D-30th)

As part of a daylong session on advocating and lobbying for early childhood policies, Erikson Institute’s Barbara Bowman Leadership Fellows gathered for a discussion about the legislative process featuring a bipartisan panel of Illinois legislators.

The panelists, all of whom have worked to draft and pass early childhood legislation at the state level, had a key message for the fellows in the audience: Advocating for better early childhood policies can be an exhausting process, but within the Illinois General Assembly, they will find many Democrats and Republicans who are eager to work with leaders in the community to pass laws that improve the lives of children and families.

“There are a lot of competing issues that get in the way of advocacy,” said Sen. Karen McConnaughay (R-33rd), one of the panelists. “You have to be a better advocate than the next person. Illinois is very diverse, and every legislator is thinking, how does this affect my constituency?”

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From left: Illinois Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford (D-4th), former Illinois Rep. Jeff Schoenberg, Illinois Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-24th), and Illinois Rep. Robert Prichard (R-24th)

In addition to McConnaughay, the panel featured Illinois General Assembly members Rep. William Davis (D-30th), Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-24th), Sen. Kimberly A. Lightford (D-4th), and Rep. Robert Prichard (R-24th). It was moderated by former Illinois Rep. Jeff Schoenberg, now senior adviser to the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation.

The panelists discussed the past two decades of progress in early childhood policies in Illinois, which resulted in bills like Preschool for All that expanded access to quality early childhood education. Today, the challenge isn’t to convince lawmakers of the benefits of investing in young children — they are already aware of the evidence, Lightford said. Rather, the challenge is to refine, improve, and expand programs that produce better outcomes for young children and their families, which are competing with other initiatives for resources.

Even at a time when many Americans are feeling cynical about the government, and national politics have become extremely partisan, it’s hard to find an issue that is as close to universally supported as early childhood, Schoenberg said. Other panelists noted that passing laws in Illinois that support children and families has long been a bipartisan effort.

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A panel of Illinois lawmakers gathers at Erikson to discuss how they work with advocates to draft and pass early childhood legislation.

“Given the political climate in Illinois, it’s nice to hear their honesty about their experiences passing legislation and working with advocates,” said Marquinta Thomas, one of the fellows and
early learning recruitment and referral manager for Illinois Action for Children.

She added that she liked one of the panelist’s suggestions that advocates and lobbyists invite legislators to “walk in their shoes” and see how policies are impacting programs on the ground. “Are providers going to them and showing them the problems they are experiencing?” she said. “Bring them into a classroom with five children that is supposed to hold 20 so they can see how under-enrolled programs are.”

The fellows, who work for Chicago-area nonprofits and government agencies, are five months into an eight-month program at Erikson designed to deepen their understanding of early childhood and enhance their ability to influence policies that impact young children and their families.

Throughout the daylong seminar, the fellows attended sessions that examined various facets of advocacy, including a panel discussion with advocates and lobbyists from peer organizations and a workshop that focused on case studies from local communities that have made a difference for children and families.