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CHICAGO - Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled his proposal Sunday to allow all 3- and 4-year-olds in Illinois to enroll in state-funded preschools, sparking criticism from political rivals who said the state lacks the money to fund such a venture.

"We all love kids, and we'd all love this to occur, but only if we could afford it," said state Treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka.

The Democratic governor proposed his "Preschool for All" program Sunday as part of his 2007 fiscal year budget, recommending that the state spend $135 million to fund it.

"Nothing is more important to parents than their children," Blagojevich said in a written statement. "And nothing is more important to a child's future than getting a good education. And that's where preschool comes in."

If the General Assembly approves the universal preschool program, Illinois would be the first state to offer free preschool to 3-year-olds, Blagojevich's office said. Three other states already have similar programs for 4-year-olds: Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida.

Blagojevich is proposing that the state spend $45 million annually for three years to fund the program.

But Topinka, several other Republican gubernatorial candidates and Blagojevich's Democratic opponent in the March primary, Edwin Eisendrath, criticized the preschool plan, calling it just one of many programs the governor has unveiled recently without having the money to pay for them.

"I've been in favor of universal pre-kindergarten programs for years, but programs and promises are not the same thing," Eisendrath said in a written statement.

Republican Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz called the proposal a gimmick.

"He has neglected that problems facing our schools for three years and now on the cusp of a re-election, this is a last-ditch, desperate effort to correct his mistakes," said Gidwitz, a former chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.

State Sen. Bill Brady, a Republican gubernatorial candidate from Bloomington, said school districts should not be mandated on how to spend their money on certain programs.

"If we had the resources, however they are obtained, we should give the resources to schools with no strings attached so they can decide how to spend it," Brady said.

A Blagojevich spokeswoman defended the preschool proposal, saying the governor has worked on improving early childhood education for years.

The state has reduced spending by eliminating jobs and consolidating agencies, increasing revenues and continuing to look at closing corporate loopholes as ways to generate more money, spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said. "This is something we cannot afford not to do," she said.

The universal preschool plan is one of several initiatives geared toward children that the governor has unveiled in recent months.

Earlier this month, Blagojevich announced a $10 million program that would help bring class sizes down. During his State of State speech in January, the governor proposed a tax credit of up to $1,000 for college students that would cost the state $90 million a year.

Blagojevich's All Kids program, which is designed to cover any child who has been uninsured for at least a year, was approved by lawmakers in October and will take effect July 1. The program will cost an estimated $45 million the first year.

"The children and grand children to come shouldn't be saddled with additional debt because of this governor's desire for re-election," said Joe Wiegand, a spokesman for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Jim Oberweis.


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