Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Education cuts "rough" this year, worse next year

By Bethany Jaeger
Grant-funded education initiatives ranging from after-school programs to gifted education were “zeroed out” in a $7.2 billion budget adopted today by the Illinois State Board of Education.

The budget relies on about $362 million in cuts. It would have been worse without about $2 billion in federal stimulus funds, which won’t be available next fiscal year.

“This is a rough year. Next year could be a catastrophic year,” said Jesse Ruiz, chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education, which met in Springfield today for an emergency meeting to enact the fiscal year 2010 budget.

Next fiscal year, the board anticipates having to cut an additional $1 billion “just to tread water” and maintain this year’s funding levels, even with 25 percent to 100 percent reductions for education-related grants, said state superintendent Christopher Koch.

The cuts are the result of a $26 billion state operating budget enacted last week. The General Assembly relied on $3.5 billion in short-term borrowing. While much of that money is earmarked to helping prevent more severe reductions in grants to community-based services, none of it so far has been dedicated to education-related grants.

For instance, agricultural education was cut in half. Early childhood education programs were reduced by a third. Bilingual education lost funding by a quarter. And $3 million for homeless education programs was eliminated, but the board said federal stimulus dollars will cover some costs this fiscal year. As we wrote about in Illinois Issues magazine this spring, the number of homeless youth is increasing while funding has failed to keep pace for years.

When deciding how to spread the pain, the board chose to fully fund general state aid and so-called mandated categoricals, which cover special education and transportation costs. The minimum amount of state aid provided for each student increased by $160, bringing the so-called foundation level up to $6,119.

Board member Joyce Karon said fully funding general state aid and mandated categoricals accomplishes two goals: It spreads the money around to reach as many students as possible and grants the most flexibility to local school districts.

The board also avoided cutting programs or line items that would leverage significant amounts of federal matching funds. If the board decreased funding for certain programs, it would fail to satisfy federal requirements to maintain past funding levels, added Linda Mitchell, the board’s chief financial officer.

“The budget passed by the General Assembly gave the board a lot of discretion, and that means gave the board a lot of difficult choices — a lot of ‘Sophie’s Choices’ of which children and which programs,” Mitchell said.

Ruiz added that the General Assembly again is mandating that districts provide such services as bilingual education but it is not approving the necessary funding. “We are just in essence putting the burden on local districts to somehow find the means and putting more stress on them,” he said. “And we can’t, as regulators in that regard, let them off the hook. Yet, we’re kind of passing the buck.”

On multiple occasions he reminded more than two-dozen advocates in attendance that the new budget has a political context: Incumbents and candidates will be campaigning throughout the state as they prepare for the 2010 elections. He said this year’s budget process, while disheartening, should energize advocates to pressure politicians to explain why they rejected revenue increases.

“Before you give them a check and a dime, challenge them and ask them how they’d invest in education in the future,” he said. “And I don’t want platitudes. I want specific plans. And make sure how they’re going to balance it all.”

He continued: “We need to become very, very, very discriminating consumers of our public officials. And I for one would raise the benchmark in my level of scrutiny in that regard. Keep your dollars in your pocket. Give to a school before you give it to a candidate.”

One advocate was Linda Drust, Williamson County Early Childhood Cooperative executive director. She said the 33 percent reduction to early childhood block grants would mean that her organization, which serves five school districts in southern Illinois, would go from serving 600 at-risk children to 400. She said she did not have alternative funding sources.

One wild card is whether Gov. Pat Quinn will use some of his discretion in a limited amount of money left over to fund such grants as early childhood education. The short-term borrowing scheme approved as part of the fiscal year 2010 budget deal allotted $2.3 billion to community-based human services and left $1.3 billion for him to spend as he chooses.

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