State budget cuts have threatened to take a bite out of Golden Apple teacher scholarships.
But while the governor has been seeking to eliminate funding for the highly regarded private program, the state is paying a collection agency to go after students who accepted competing state-run scholarships then skipped out on commitments to teach in struggling schools.
Providing financial assistance to students who promise to teach in tough schools is at the core of Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois and the state's teacher scholarship programs. And for more than a decade, lawmakers found the resources to fund both efforts.
After all, Illinois continues to face a scarcity of elementary and secondary teachers, especially in Chicago and other communities where poverty is high and student test scores are low. Even schools that can afford new hires have trouble attracting candidates. In October 2003, Illinois schools had 1,394 budgeted teaching posts they couldn't fill.
But it was against this backdrop that Gov. Rod Blagojevich moved to eliminate state funding for Golden Apple, a scholarship program that provides additional training and professional support for new teachers entering challenging classrooms. At the same time, he doubled funding for Illinois Future Teacher Corps, an existing scholarship program his administration renamed.
Officials at Golden Apple say the $3.8 million in state support they received last year was well spent. In addition to financial support, it provides mentoring and additional training for 100 new students each year and another 300 already in college. On the other hand, argues Dominic Belmonte, director of teacher preparation for Golden Apple, the Illinois Future Teacher Corps merely offers money. "It's a check-writing concept," he says. "What we do is ensure, as best we can, the investment [made] in these young people by increasing and strengthening their preparation and by mentoring them, both while they're in college and when they start teaching."
Most Golden Apple scholars begin preparation right after high school, entering a six-week summer program, where they spend days assisting accomplished teachers and nights attending teacher preparation courses at DePaul University in Chicago.
Dakota Pawlicki, a freshman at Illinois State University in Normal, completed his first Golden Apple training session this summer, working at St. Patrick's High School in Chicago. The tuba player wants to teach music to inner-city students, and he says Golden Apple is giving him the grounding he won't get from college classes.
"They teach the ideal situation, not what to do when a kid gets up and throws a chair," Pawlicki says. "That's what Golden Apple is for." While in college, Golden Apple scholars complete four summer institutes, receiving a $2,000 stipend each year. They also receive $5,000 annual scholarships during four years of college, provided they keep a C+ average and promise to teach in low-income or academically struggling schools for five years following graduation.
When looking for work, Golden Apple graduates can consult a list of 2,500 public, private and parochial schools in Illinois that have a high concentration of students from low-income families. Or they can choose to teach at any public school where at least 43 percent of students in a single grade level are failing multiple subjects on state exams.
After graduates enter those environments, Golden Apple staff observe the teachers during their initial classroom years. The program offers professional development conferences each summer for graduates entering the field and current teachers who need to renew state certification.
Competing state scholarships administered by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission offer prospective teachers help with tuition, but don't supplement the teacher training already offered at Illinois colleges. The state scholarships are not available until a student enters the junior year of college. That assistance, strictly financial, ends at graduation.
Students selected for Illinois Future Teacher Corps receive $5,000 for tuition and room and board if they commit to teaching at any Illinois school for five years. Awards can double or triple for students who will teach in one of the 2,500 Illinois schools with a high concentration of low-income students and for those who specialize in math, special education and other subjects where the state has a teacher shortage. All recipients are obligated to teach for five years. Under past governors, the requirement was a commitment to teach one year for each scholarship year.
Recipients of low-interest federal college loans also can have their debt forgiven if they teach for five years in a low-income school or shortage discipline. This program is available across the country.
In Illinois, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students also can apply for Minority Teachers of Illinois scholarships, which offer $5,000 a year to juniors and seniors. For each year they receive the scholarship, recipients must promise to teach one year in a school with at least 30 percent minority enrollment.
Golden Apple competes for funding with these two state programs, but when it comes to quality, the foundation says, there's no contest. "The things that we add to the people we select is just so much more than giving a check to a university on behalf of a young person in the hopes they'll become well-trained, resilient and able to withstand the challenges offered to them. That's the difference between our programs," says Belmonte of Golden Apple.
"That statement is unfair to the thousands of students who rely on the Illinois Future Teacher Corps scholarships," says Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Management and Budget. "Not only do they have great financial need, but they've demonstrated a will to help children in underserved communities." Carroll brushes aside the qualitative judgments offered by Golden Apple.
"Anyone can argue back and forth the merits of this program or that program, or who does a better job," Carroll says. "The bottom line is, the Future Teacher Corps is helping to put teachers into underserved communities in return for getting a helping hand from the state. And we're proud of that."
Although it's had two previous names under two previous governors, Illinois Future Teacher Corps has been around since 1995, two years after then-Gov. Jim Edgar began funding Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois.
The two programs coexisted rather harmoniously until two years ago, when Gov. Blagojevich took office under the burden of a state deficit pegged as high as $5 billion. Golden Apple staved off budget cuts last year, but its $3.8 million allocation was absent when the governor proposed his second annual budget back in February.
"Golden Apple is a private organization that receives a tremendous amount of financial support from sources other than state government," says Carroll of Blagojevich's budget office. "Considering that we had so few financial resources at our disposal, we needed to prioritize our spending and put state programs at the top of our spending list."
Golden Apple's 2002 tax return shows $1.4 million in private contributions, but the scholars program largely relies on state support, which, after negotiations, was cut by 20 percent this year. Contributions help the foundation present annual excellence in teaching awards, put on training workshops and offer an alternative teacher certification program for college graduates seeking a second career in the classroom.
Lawmakers say Golden Apple has a reputation as a successful program, which helped beat back the governor's budget cuts. During this summer's overtime session, the General Assembly cut $2.9 million from Blagojevich's Illinois Future Teacher Corps while finding $3 million to restore most of Golden Apple's funding. "It's something that actually works," says Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, a Greenville Republican. "I think it was important that we put back as much funding as we could."
Democrats expressed similar sentiments. Still, the foundation will seek additional funding in this month's veto session, hoping to return its state funding to the $3.8 million approved last year. Of course that, too, took some wrangling, as the foundation won $600,000 in a supplemental spending bill that added $284 million to the state budget last March.
This year, Golden Apple staved off elimination of state funding by deploying grassroots lobbying and distributing maps that showed how many scholars reside in each legislative district. It also helped to have Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's wife, Maggie, and Arne Duncan, Chicago schools CEO, on the foundation's board of directors.
Meanwhile, the state could end up paying a Georgia firm $300,000 this year to track down former students who were awarded state teacher scholarships but didn't fulfill their teaching obligations. Risk Management Alternatives landed the contract, which promises the company a 20 percent cut of each debt it collects. The state says the contract likely won't exceed $200,000 this year, an indication of the difficulty involved in finding debtors and convincing them to settle up. Since 2001, the state has paid a Texas firm $181,243 to track down truant teacher scholars, but only 16 percent of 1,647 debtors paid up.
Today, nearly 1,800 debtors owe the state $11.5 million. The bulk of that debt stems from more than a dozen defunct teacher scholarships previously administered by the Illinois State Board of Education. They offered incentives for students willing to teach certain subjects, but have been supplanted by the broader Minority Teachers of Illinois and Illinois Future Teacher Corps scholarships.
Overall, the debt accumulated by teachers whose careers were cut short reflects an attrition problem that plagues the profession as a whole. A third of new teachers leave the profession in their first three years and nearly half exit within five, according to an analysis of annual teacher surveys collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.
"The governor is crazy for cutting the [Golden Apple] program because he's basically cutting the best teacher training program in the state at a time when teachers are leaving the profession in droves," says Katherine Hogan, an English teacher at Curie High School in southwest Chicago. She grew up in suburban Wheaton, but Hogan says her experience as a Golden Apple scholar prepared her for the Chicago Public Schools. It's an environment where some students are so smart they're bored with class and some may have never really learned to read. "So," Hogan says, "you have to find a way to reach all of them in 45 minutes a day."
Of course, not all Golden Apple scholars end up in the classroom or stay to fulfill their five-year commitment. Since its inception in 1989, Golden Apple has had an 80 percent retention rate, meaning four of five scholars are still in school or have graduated and are fulfilling their teaching requirements. Belmonte notes that figure doesn't include a few dozen graduates who are teaching, but not in Illinois, or are not in an academically challenged or low-income school.
The success rate for the state's two teacher scholarships is much less clear. In 2002, the state surveyed nearly 1,700 students who had graduated with the help of the scholarships. Of those working, 86 percent were teaching or had met their obligation to teach. But another 120 recipients had been out of college at least five years and hadn't started teaching, meaning they would soon default, dropping the success rate below 80 percent. Current rules now require recipients to begin teaching within a year of graduation.
Some of the recipients surveyed two years ago said they left teaching in search of more money, a common refrain in a profession fraught with low pay and long hours. Last year, starting pay for a college-educated teacher in Illinois was as low as $20,890. Golden Apple scholars say their program offers the support teachers need to resist the lure of more pay and lower workloads outside the classroom. "As a teacher, it's really essential to have some sort of backbone that you know will support you, keep you going," says Ziomara Perez, a preschool teacher at Jahn Elementary, a public school on Chicago's North Side. "Sometimes you lose sight [of the reality] that you're here for the children because you're bombarded with all these politics and paperwork. You forget you're here for the kids, and unless you have someone to keep reminding you why you became a teacher in the first place, teachers, they end up looking at it as a money thing and eI'm going to go find a job that pays me more.'"
With the state's fiscal woes continuing to obscure most discussion in Springfield, the Golden Apple Foundation hopes lawmakers won't lose sight of the support their program offers in a field where recruits are in demand but often underprepared. The foundation has even suggested a classroom study that would pit Golden Apple scholars against recipients of state teacher scholarships, a test that would let their students' scores do the talking.
On the more immediate horizon is this month's veto session, where Golden Apple is asking for $800,000, which would bring them back to last year's funding level. In this respect, the foundation joins a long list of competitors, says Steve Brown, spokesman for Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. "I think that the shorter list would be people who don't need money in November."
Illinois Issues, November 2004