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Thursday, Nov. 4, 2010 03:02 am

Area educators weigh in on state budget

State board of education holds public hearing in Springfield

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PHOTO BY RED HUBER

General state aid, mandated programs and pre-kindergarten funding have been and should remain top education priorities for the state as it muddles through yet another budget process with record-breaking deficit projections, area educators told the Illinois State Board of Education last week at a public hearing held in Springfield.

Though primary and secondary education has taken funding hits over the past two years, general state aid, the flexible funding source used to ensure all schools can afford to spend a minimum level on each student, remained steady for the current fiscal year, FY 2011. The minimum level of funding per student in FY 2010 increased by $160, for a total of $6,119 per student.

At the same time, mandated programs, including special education and transportation, were cut by about 7.6 percent, all of it from transportation, in FY 2011.  In FY 2010, Gov. Pat Quinn restored much of the cuts originally expected for early childhood education programs, which still saw cuts of about $38 million, or 10 percent. This year, funding for early childhood education remained flat, after Quinn appropriated reserve funds to the programs.

Education problems could be exacerbated next year, when about $2 billion of federal stimulus funding runs dry. The state has used the stimulus funding to buoy the education budget for the past two years.

Kathy Davis, the pre-k coordinator for Springfield School District 186, at the hearing read notes she received from parents and grade school teachers who explained how children who complete pre-k programs are better prepared for success throughout the rest of their lives. “This [pre-k] program is wonderful. I wish my third-grade son who’s having trouble at school could have come here.  He could have really used it. I know his brother won’t have the same problems he’s having because he’s getting this program now,” one parent wrote Davis.

Davis says that especially during tough economic times, early childhood education should be a priority. She cites research that shows that children in all social and economic groups who’ve participated in high-quality pre-k programs go on to greater academic and career success and are less likely to commit crimes. “If we’re ever going to close the achievement gap, we have to offer high-quality early childhood education experiences to our youngest learners,” she says.

Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, with the Ounce of Prevention Fund, says the FY 2010 reduction in early childhood education block grants meant an estimated 10,000 children were unable to attend pre-kindergarten. She says that Quinn’s appropriation of about $206 million in reserve funding to keep early childhood education funding flat this year showed that the programs were a priority, but the state’s backlog of payments to providers is still causing significant strife for districts offering the programs.  

Aigner-Treworgy says there’s one solution – “a responsible approach to the state budget that includes new, recurring revenue sources. We strongly encourage the state board to add their voice in this call to action from across the state to the General Assembly.”

Other stakeholders echoed Aigner-Treworgy’s call for a different approach to the budget from state lawmakers.

“I personally think it’s very challenging to ask advocacy groups to do the work of the executive and the legislature,” says Bridget Helmholz, government affairs consultant with the Illinois Association of Private Special Education Centers. “The executive and legislative branches are responsible for any response to this situation since they’re authorized to raise the revenues and they’re responsible for the state budget process.”

Between the state’s backlog of bills and tardiness in finalizing the past two years’ state budgets, educators, who must adhere to their own staffing and budget deadlines, are unable to make any real plans, says Diane Rutledge, former Springfield schools superintendent who now works for Illinois’ Large Unit District Association, of which Springfield District 186 is a member. “It’s so frustrating when we have deadlines to meet regarding budgets and staffing and yet we’re not knowing what our revenues are. There’s no one here who would run a business in the very same way,” Rutledge says. She suggested that the legislature revise districts’ deadlines and requirements, if lawmakers can’t hammer out a complete budget in time and if less money is available to implement programs.

Other Springfield-based advocates sought support for programs that provide mentoring for new teachers; for the Illinois Instructional Materials Center, which helps Dist. 186 serve about 50 visually impaired students in their neighborhood schools; and for gifted education programs, which retired Springfield educator Carolyn Blackwell says are often given low priority in budget crises despite many of the students’ special needs.

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com

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