SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Tuesday signed a law creating a separate Department of Early Childhood that will make it “simpler, better and fairer” for families seeking assistance and care for the state’s youngest residents.

The agency’s creation comes after five years of study that started with a commission and determined that Illinois families faced a Byzantine bulwark in trying to obtain services often ensconced in disparate agencies: the State Board of Education and the departments of Human Services and Healthcare and Family Services.

“For years, they have navigated a system that is too often overly complex and sometimes completely disjointed,” Pritzker said at Eyes On The Future Child Development Center in Chicago. “Our state-funded early childhood programs operate across three different state agencies, putting an unnecessary burden on families looking for support and on those providing the support that is truly needed.”

Illinois becomes the fourth state in the nation to devote an executive branch agency to early development, according to the Education Commission of the States. Georgia and Maryland swept various offices serving children and families into early childhood departments as early as 2004. Alabama underwent a similar shakeup in 2015.

Other states, such as Colorado, Maryland and Pennsylvania exercise close coordination among related childhood services by putting them in a single division within an executive department or creating joint oversight of department programs.

With $13 million in seed money, Ann Whalen, formerly of the education advocacy group Advance Illinois, has served as the new agency’s transition director since last fall.

“Once fully implemented in 2026, this new agency will make life simpler, better and fairer for tens of thousands of Illinois families immediately, and of course, for hundreds of thousands and millions of families going forward,” Pritzker said.

Pritzker has prioritized early childhood education since taking office and noted that the state is about to embark on its second full year of the expanded Smart Start pre-school program.

His Senate sponsor for the new agency, Democratic Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford of Westchester, is no newcomer to the field. She shepherded the introduction of universal pre-school nearly 20 years ago.

Key to success is embracing a “trauma-informed approach,” Lightford said. The fact is many families — parents, caretakers and children — who need state intervention and assistance have experienced instances of severe distress.

“We commit to creating environments that are safe, nurturing, and conducive to healing,” Lightford said. “With the creation of this department, we are not just building an institution, we are laying the groundwork for a more compassionate, equitable and a resilient society.”

While it appears to be an expansion of government, Pritzker downplayed uproar over a sprawling bureaucracy. The space and personnel necessary for the consolidation of programs should be minimal, although he wouldn’t put a price on minting a new operation.