August 7, 2009
Not since the mid 90s has Illinois faced the type of budget role back and difficult choices about spending priorities that we face today. Like our federal government right now, Illinois expanded programs way beyond revenues, mortgaged our children’s future and substituted government for personal responsibility. We have been lulled into complacency ignoring more efficient and effective means of operations so desperately needed when the economy slowed and revenues dwindled.
Governor Quinn was tossed the “hot potato” by the legislature to balance the budget, make choices about which programs to fund and determine what direction the state should be headed in a competitive global economy. He made some of those decisions at the end of July when he announced $1 billion in spending cuts and has yet to reveal how he will handle another $1.4 billion in spending that exceeds revenue.
This process has not been easy. The governor’s waffling about what programs were funded and failure to negotiate added to anxiety. Budget realignment is not over. We have still to make the reforms necessary to stem the rapid growth in health care, pensions and education which comprise over 90% of the state budget. Then there are the matters of unpaid bills and replacing one time revenue in next year’s budget. More tough choices are necessary.
Federal Education Focus Changes
President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan in announcing funding for a new education grant program may also be signaling a change in federal education policy. They are now promoting a “Race to the Top” and likely dropping “No Child Left Behind.”
The philosophy seems to be focusing on school best practices rather than just student achievement. Most school administrators and teachers have long questioned the accuracy of looking at one test per year and comparing different classes to measure student learning.
The Race to the Top grant program rewards states who initiate effective education reform in four significant areas. First, adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the work place. Second, recruit, develop, reward, and retain effective teachers and principals. Third, build data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve teaching. Finally, turn around the lowest-performing schools.
Illinois education leaders have been following this change of policy and have positioned the state to capture its share of the $4.35 billion in new competitive grants for reforms. The legislature and governor passed legislation to track student-specific performance data, increased the number of charter schools and funded efforts for learning standards, assessment and accountability.
Illinois Expands Charter Schools
Last week Governor Quinn signed Senate Bill 612 into law which will allow Illinois to double the number of charter schools. The legislation gives Chicago 40 additional single campus charters, while downstate will receive 15. Five additional charters will be focused on recovery of drop-out students.
The law also places more requirements on charter schools. By the start of the 2012 school year, 75% of charter school teachers will be required to be certified by the state, compared to 50% currently. Expanding charter schools will also give Illinois a chance to compete for federal grants that are available for states that take initiatives to reform schools.
Charter schools are created and supervised by public schools. In exchange for strict accountability for performance, charter schools are allowed to operate free from many of the regulations that apply to other schools. The mission-driven environment attracts entrepreneurial teachers and principals, and enables greater innovation in the classroom. Charter schools are often created to give students an alternative for failing neighborhood schools, especially in Chicago.
Delayed Payments Now Affecting Citizens
I’ve spoken often about how the state’s failure to pay bills on time has affected providers of various services and supplies. Not only does this policy increase the cost of doing business but also many agencies have been forced out of business when they reach their credit limits. This delayed payment strategy to balance the budget is now directly affecting citizens as well.
The backlog of unpaid bills at the end of June totaled $3.9 billion, which is over a threefold increase in the past five years and results in providers in this area waiting nine months or longer to be paid. As a result, many providers of health care services are now requiring state employees and Medicaid clients to pay for the state’s share of the cost of care in advance or in full within 30 days.
In some cases that could mean tens of thousands of dollars. State law requires the executive branch to pay interest when payment is delayed but several loopholes in the law allow no payment for “borrowing” money from some providers and now citizens.
While the Governor’s office told me a few days ago that $100 million will be available to pay healthcare providers that amount is but the tip of the iceberg. What is unclear is whether the state will pay interest to citizens for lending money to the state. I will continue to pressure the administration to change its fiscal policy about paying bills on time.
NIU’s Summer Math College Preps Incoming Freshmen
More than 40 students from the Chicago Public School system are getting a head start on college-level mathematics this summer through a pilot program known as Summer Math College. The new program, conducted at Roosevelt University in Chicago, is being offered this summer for incoming Northern Illinois University freshmen in an effort to better prepare them for college.
Through the McKinley “Deacon” Davis CHANCE Program, students are offered intensive mathematics instruction and tutoring to strengthen math foundations and placements. NIU plans to expand the Summer Math College program as a strategy to reduce the number of students who need to take remedial classes to be prepared for college level instruction.
The mission of CHANCE is to identify, recruit and assist capable students whose pre-college education has not prepared them like most other college students. Thousands of NIU students have benefited from the CHANCE program over the past 40 years and have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professionals.
University Budgets Impacted by Drop in Financial Aid to Students
While state payments to higher education this year will be similar to FY 2009, a drop in state financial aid for students could mean a drop in student enrollment and therefore impact higher education budgets. Student tuition and fees has been a growing portion of college and university operating budgets as direct state aid has been reduced.
State appropriations for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission and the Monetary Award Program (MAP) have been cut in half for FY2010. While MAP funding will be normal for the fall semester, no grants will be awarded to students for the spring semester. This will be a “devastating blow to the 5,000 students at Northern Illinois University who rely on the grants to be able to attend college” according the NIU President John Peters.
MAP grants are not the only source of student funding that is being reduced. Funding was cut for Illinois veterans to receive higher education benefits for their military service. Colleges and universities are still required to provide veterans with an education but with no state funding that would mean a $3.4 million expenses to NIU and hundreds of thousands of dollars to each community college.
Education is key to a skilled workforce that attracts business to Illinois and fulfills individual dreams for a successful career. I urge the governor to rethink his spending priorities and help students and military veterans obtain the education they need and deserve.