Dusty Rhodes

Reporter - Education Desk

After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014. But it's not her years of experience or her education that help her understand this beat. It's her sons -- "one homemade, one adopted" -- who have vastly different types of intelligence and vastly different learning styles. Between the two of them, she's experienced public, charter, Montessori and magnet schools, gifted, IEP and 504 accommodations, and uncountable band concerts, science fairs, basketball games, and parent/teacher conferences. It's the parent/teacher conferences that always make her cry.

Courtesy of Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy

For more than 30 years, kids with a certain streak of genius have found a home at Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in suburban Chicago. It’s the rarest of gems in the educational landscape: a public, affordable, boarding school. One of just a handful of such schools nationwide, Wired magazine dubbed it “Hogwarts for Hackers.” But now, after the state’s two-year budget impasse, lawmakers are pondering a proposal that would welcome wizards from outside of Illinois — for a price.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

An obscure, technical bit of legislation could make a big difference for some of the state’s youngest students. It’s meant to tie up all the loose ends on the massive school funding reform lawmakers approved last August. This cleanup bill contains more than a dozen changes, plus language that would fund bilingual education for students in pre-kindergarten classes. All it needs is the signature of Governor Bruce Rauner.


Without that?

Sue Scherer/Facebook

A recent report has shown Illinois is in the midst of a severe teacher shortage, particularly in the central part of the state. A panel of lawmakers took testimony on that topic today.

In the first of a series of such hearings, a committee heard from the agency responsible for licensing teachers, and from various teacher unions. But several lawmakers on the panel are former school teachers, and Rep. Sue Scherer (D-Decatur) wasn't shy about sharing her personal opinion on why the ranks of teachers is dwindling.

Archbishop Blaise Cupich at Inauguration 2015
Brian Mackey/WUIS/NPR Illinois

Chicago Cardinal Blaise Cupich traveled to Springfield today to voice his support of stricter gun laws. But he also addressed Illinois' new school funding reform, and its tax credit program for private school scholarship donors.  

Dusty Rhodes

The Illinois State Board of Education is supposed to spend more government dollars on the neediest schools, according to a new funding plan. Today, lawmakers pushed back against the agency’s proposed price tag.


The new plan is called "evidence-based funding," because it measures what each district needs against local resources. Using that math, state superintendent Tony Smith presented a budget request for $15 billion — about double what schools got last year.

McConchie in office
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

A panel of state senators today heard budget requests from agencies representing colleges and universities, and lawmakers took the opportunity to ask why neighboring states are able to lure so many Illinois students away.


The answer is pretty simple: Other Big 10 schools offer financial considerations that Illinois' flagship campus can't match.

screenshot of students in classroom from TV ad
Citizens For Rauner, Inc.

One of the biggest changes Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed in today's budget address is making local school districts bear the costs of teacher pensions.

Smith talking with young student
Illinois State Board of Education / Facebook

Last August, when Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the historic school funding reform plan, the celebration was like the political version of a wedding. Lawmakers from both parties got dressed up, made lovely speeches, and posed for pictures next to that one cousin they never really liked.

animation of clock ticking quickly with student at laptop
Milo Skalicky / for NPR Illinois

The controversial standardized tests known as PARCC could be on their way out after this spring. The Illinois State Board of Education plans to request sealed proposals for a new statewide exam next week. That’s in response to concerns from teachers and parents about the hours-long reading and math assessment that most third- and eighth-graders failed.

Al Bowman midshot in tree-lined area
Illinois State University

After years of cuts and chronic underfunding, state higher education officials voted yesterday to make a modest request for next year’s budget.

Meeting in Springfield, the Illinois Board of Higher Education had a lengthy debate: Do we ask for what we really need? Or do we ask for what we think we can get?

General Assembly electronic vote tally board
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois 91.9 UIS

Less than an hour before Gov. Bruce Rauner was scheduled to deliver his State of the State address, lawmakers in the House and Senate voted to override his veto of a small, technical school funding bill necessary to implement the massive school funding reform that Rauner has listed as his main accomplishment.

Courtesy of Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant

Gov. Bruce Rauner has claimed his top accomplishment of last year was transforming the way Illinois funds public schools. But the dollars pledged by that new law haven’t been distributed. Instead, Rauner and state agencies have been focused on implementing and expanding a tax credit program for private schools, added to the bill at the last minute to get the governor signature.


Families who send their children to private schools probably thought they received a break under the new federal tax law. But Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs warns that's not necessarily so.  

Bright Start and Bright Directions are savings plans designed to let Illinois parents accrue tax-free interest while stashing money to pay their kids’ college tuition. The new tax law says these plans, known as 529 accounts, can now be used to pay for up to $10,000 per year in private school tuition for younger kids, too.

courtesy of Neil Calderon

Pres. Donald Trump’s administration has been in power for a year now. “State of Trump” is our series discussing what’s changed in the state ... and what might be ahead.


Today we hear from high school government teacher Neil Calderon about how the Trump presidency has affected the way he teaches:


This week, Gov. Bruce Rauner dodged a Nerf-ball question about whether former Congressman and Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke was a racist. Meanwhile, Rauner, a Republican, is running an infomercial about Democratic primary candidate J.B. Pritzker. And we hear the latest on the school funding overhaul that just won't end.

White board with, "School Funding" written on it
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

The Illinois State Board of Education today voted unanimously to ask the General Assembly to practically double state funding for public schools.

Last summer, the legislature voted to change the way Illinois funds schools by adopting what's called an “evidence-based model.” That model weighs what each district needs against its local resources. As it turns out, some districts can't achieve even 50 percent of adequate funding, while others have almost three times what they need.

Rep. La Shawn K. Ford headshot

Last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner used his veto authority to make big changes to a small clean-up bill that’s necessary to enact school funding reform. Democrats who pushed the reform warned that Rauner’s action could derail the bipartisan effort to make school funding more equitable. As it turns out, they’re not the only ones upset about it.

Rauner at gym with students
Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

If you’ve seen Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign commercials, you might think the school funding issue was settled last summer. But as often happens with complex legislation, it was followed by a “trailer” bill cleaning up some technical language. Rauner decided to use his veto pen on that bill to lower the bar for private schools to qualify for a controversial tax credit program. Now, the Illinois State Board of Education is warning that “time is of the essence” for the General Assembly to uphold the trailer bill (Senate Bill 444). Without it, nearly 200 Illinois school districts will lose out on equitable funding.

Rauner announced his amendatory veto of SB1 standing alone.
Daisy Contreras / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Gov. Bruce Rauner has boasted that fixing Illinois’ woefully inequitable school funding formula was his top accomplishment of the past year. But yesterday, he struck down a measure needed to implement that reform, by issuing an amendatory veto of a relatively short, simple “trailer” bill drafted to ensure that the 550-page reform plan squared up with the financial models lawmakers had approved.

For the past several years, Illinois has been losing more college students than any state except New Jersey. Last year, as higher education was starved by the state budget impasse, that trend continued.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 2 percent, with even steeper drops at public universities and community colleges. 

Schools defying this trend include those focused on medical professions, such as City Colleges of Chicago's Malcolm X campus. Mark Potter, the provost, said its home in the medical district makes it more attractive.

geographic chart of private school donations in Illinois
Illinois Department of Revenue

Beginning this week, people and corporations donating up to $1.3 million for private school scholarships can get a 75 percent credit toward their state income tax. This was a controversial but bipartisan concept, adopted last summer to help forge a compromise in a big overhaul of Illinois' school funding plan.

Such programs have taken off in other states, but it’s off to a slower start here.

Asia Gentry and Jessica Atterberry midshot
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

If you’ve got a recent college graduate on your gift list, you might be interested in the results of a survey conducted by the finance firm Lend Edu. They asked people with student loans whether they’d rather get a holiday gift or an equal value payment toward that debt. We decided to take that poll for a tiny test drive with two recent college grads, who gave us plenty of food for thought.

Myles Mendoza midshot
Courtesy of Myles Mendoza

Many of us enjoy a party on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day, but for a few wealthy Illinois residents, Jan. 2 will be the day to celebrate. Beginning at 8 a.m., on a first-come, first-served basis, they can reserve a hefty tax credit in return for their donation to a private school.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

School districts had a year to implement a state law that banned zero-tolerance policies and emphasized restorative justice practices. We check back in with five districts we visited  in the summer of 2016 to see how school discipline has changed.

Slide outside classroom window
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Just when you thought the state’s controversial battle over school funding was over, it turns out there’s a few technicalities that need to be addressed.

State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch midshot
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

With teachers devoting much of their time to preparing students for standardized tests, penmanship has disappeared from the curriculum in many schools. A new state law approved yesterday will bring it back, to ensure elementary students get instruction in cursive writing — sometime between 2nd and 5th grade.

State Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch (D-Hillside) filed the measure the same day lawmakers approved his resolution on zombie apocalypse preparedness.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi midshot
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Let's say you've got a student loan and you get laid off your job. Your loan servicer suggests something called "forebearance" — the chance to delay payments for a year or two. Sounds tempting, but it ends up costing you more money.

That's one of the many tricky facts loan servicers will have to disclose in Illinois, where lawmakers yesterday approved stringent regulations on student loan service companies.

Jessica Handy works as a lobbyist for an education advocacy organization called Stand for Children. I’ve aired interviews with her in the past because she’s got a knack for explaining complex numbers. So to her, the most critical part of this story is the numbers. Specifically, some very long odds.

Al Bowman midshot in tree-lined area
Illinois State University

Al Bowman, a former president of Illinois State University, has been tapped to lead the Illinois Board of Higher Education. His appointment comes as higher education institutions have seen their budgets slashed and enrollment decline, so it’s hard to know whether to congratulate him.

“You know, I’ve been getting that from people,” Bowman laughs.

He is going into his new job eyes wide open. Illinois ranked number two in the nation for net loss of college students.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois 91.9 UIS

Want to know how your kid's school is performing compared to others? The Illinois State Board of Education today released graduation rates, test scores, and other metrics through its online school report cards. Results show that standardized test scores, graduation rates and participation in advanced placement courses are all inching upwards.