Education Desk

Weekly coverage of Education in Illinois.

The NPR Illinois Education Desk is a community funded initiative to report on stories that impact you.  Stories on the state of education from K-12 to higher education written by Illinois and national journalists.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

The Grand Bargain is a package of interlocking legislation designed to break the budget impasse. How important is school funding to that deal? Important enough that leaders titled it Senate Bill One. Under the plan filed by Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), the state would freeze funding at current levels. Any additional dollars would be distributed based on each district’s demographics and unique needs, channeling the bulk of the money toward low-income districts.

Lia Lauck / Oswego High School

The Illinois State Board of Education approved a massive new school accountability plan last week. Our education desk reporter takes a closer look at the portion of the plan dealing with the fine arts.

A globe in a classroom with the Illinois flag in the background.
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

A bacteria model hanging from a classroom ceiling.
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Property taxes, PE, police, twins, tampons, Title I funds, teacher evaluations, lactating students and lottery dollars — these are a few of the legislative measures working their way through education committees in the General Assembly.

Kristi Barnwell

Faculty at the University of Illinois Springfield have been negotiating for a new contract. Talks have been going on more than a year, and they haven't even started talking about dollars.

Kristi Barnwell, an associate professor of history, is vice-president of UIS United Faculty and a participant in negotiations.

“Every year, the campus does an analysis of where our wages sit compared to other universities and campuses of similar size and profile, and every year, we come up well below the median for professors’ salaries at every rank," she says.

ALLEN CHASTAIN

In the November elections, Christian County went solidly for Donald Trump. It's not the kind of environment where taxes for public services are popular. Nevertheless, the Taylorville School District is asking voters to raise their own property taxes, and the district has put everything on the line.

The district hasn’t had a tax increase in 38 years, and is now operating with a $1.3 million annual deficit. If the referendum fails, the district will eliminate all extracurricular activities and all elective classes.

A.D. Carson in studio
Ken Scar / Clemson University

A.D. Carson grew up in Decatur, graduated from Millikin University, and earned a master's degree here at the University of Illinois Springfield. He’s now a Ph.D candidate at Clemson University, where today he’s defending his dissertation -- a hip-hop project that’s gone viral.

One word of warning: The music in this story contains a racial term some listeners might find offensive, but it’s part of Carson’s scholarly work.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

Gov. Bruce Rauner has made elementary and secondary education a signature issue of his administration, and today, he met with the State Board of Education in an effort to nudge the state’s academic goals higher.

 

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Low-income college students have a glimmer of hope now that Governor Bruce Rauner has included money for Monetary Award Program, or MAP grants, in his budget plan. But students already in school may not enjoy the benefit.

Amanda Vinicky / NPR Illinois

Gov. Bruce Rauner prides himself on robust funding for elementary and secondary education, and in yesterday's budget address, he promised a $213 million increase for k-12 schools. But State Sen. Andy Manar says only a fraction of that money will reach Illinois’ poorest school districts.

Illinois Student Assistance Commission

Eric Zarnikow is in charge of Illinois’ program to help low-income students pay college tuition, known as MAP grants. He cheered yesterday when Gov. Bruce Rauner proposed increasing MAP funding by 10 percent, saying it could accommodate 12,000 more students, or increase the size of the grants.

But one thing the proposal does not do is pay for MAP students in school today.

 

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

Gov. Bruce Rauner's efforts to equalize school funding in Illinois have gotten a lot of publicity lately, since the bipartisan commission he established concluded by issuing a report earlier this month. But another group of lawmakers was simultaneously tackling the same issue. It was lead by State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood). What conclusion did that group come to?

State Rep. Will Davis filed a school funding reform package last week that promises to makes school funding in Illinois more equitable. How much will it cost? How much will each school district gain or lose? Is Davis even going to call the bill for a committee hearing? All good questions with no firm answers.

Andy Manar with reporter mics in front of him
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Last week, the School Funding Reform Commission wrapped up six months of work trying to fix the state's notoriously inequitable support structure for public schools by producing a report calling for new dollars to go first to school districts that have been historically underfunded. However, the commission stopped short of proposing its own legislation. Sen. Andy Manar, a Democrat from Bunker Hill who has already proposed three school funding reform packages, is calling on Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration to come up with a piece of legislation that would carry out the concepts endorsed in the commission's report.

Beth Purvis headshot
Courtesy of Beth Purvis

This is the second part of our conversation with Beth Purvis, Illinois Secretary of Education. She led a 25-member commission over six months of meetings, trying to cure the state’s notoriously inequitable school funding structure. The commission concluded its work last week by issuing a report, but stopped short of crafting actual legislation. Purvis rarely talks to the media, but on the day the commission adjourned, she spoke for about half an hour with NPR Illinois.

Beth Purvis made her first appearance as Secretary of Education at a School Management Alliance/Vision 2020 event.
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Beth Purvis serves as Gov. Bruce Rauner's Secretary of Education, and she headed the 25-member commission he tasked with finding a way to make Illinois' school funding more equitable. After six months of meetings, the bipartisan panel adjourned yesterday releasing a report meant to guide lawmakers toward drafting a reform measure. Shortly after that final meeting, Purvis talked to me about the novel test she used with the commission, and why the panel stopped short of endorsing a specific plan.

MAP students from St. Xavier University lobbied lawmakers at the Thompson Center in Chicago last February.
St. Xavier University

The ongoing state budget impasse, now in its second year, has been particularly tough for low-income college students who rely on the state’s Monetary Award Program -- known as the MAP grant -- to help cover tuition. The state has delivered only a fraction of the money promised for those grants, and schools have had to choose between covering the grants using their own reserves or billing the students. The latter choice leaves campus financial aid officers with the task of breaking the bad news to students. We asked Sue Swisher, executive director of financial aid at St. Xavier University in Chicago, to tell us how those conversations go.

Daniel Biss speaking to group
Office of state Sen. Daniel Biss

The last time the General Assembly tried to make school funding more equitable across Illinois, the legislation got derailed largely due to a fight over teacher pensions. Now pensions have cropped up again, this time in a bipartisan commission working to overhaul the school funding formula.

Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

For the past 20 years, school funding in Illinois has relied heavily on property taxes, which means schools near prime commercial or residential areas thrive, while others struggle to get by. Since August, a bi-partisan, bi-cameral group of lawmakers has been meeting regularly to try to come up with a better way to fund public schools.

borken piggy bank on classroom desk
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

The state’s ongoing budget impasse has hit community colleges particularly hard, with funds to these schools and the students who attend them drastically reduced. The Illinois Community College Board is distributing $3 million in emergency aid, divided among seven campuses.

Video monitors of commission meeting
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

More than any other state in the country, Illinois relies on property taxes to fund public schools. As a result, districts in prosperous areas can spend a lot more per student than districts in low-income or rural areas. A group of lawmakers charged with revamping this scheme has been meeting since summer, facing a deadline of February first. But the group isn’t moving fast enough for State Senator Andy Manar. He’s the leading Democrat on the commission. He’s also considering running for governor.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

In the ongoing budget grudge match between Governor Bruce Rauner and the Democratically-controlled legislature, one bright spot is that public schools have been spared. Rauner, in fact, has boasted that under his administration, general state aid for schools has been fully funded for the first time in years. But there’s a caveat to that claim.

Courtesy of Julie Posth

The ongoing budget impasse means that state funding for colleges and universities will run out Dec. 31. While some schools are fronting the money for students who get state assistance, a recent survey found that others are scooping up students' federal financial aid to fill in the gap. It's a little bit like opening your child's birthday card from grandma, and pocketing the cash.

The first year of teaching is a little bit like jumping into the ocean. You can practice in a swimming pool and pretend you’re in the ocean. You can sit on a boat and watch other people dive in. But until you do it yourself, there’s no way to know how the waves are going to feel or how you’ll fend off the jellyfish and sharks. Jeniece Baines is one of those brand new teachers.

She teaches reading and writing to 7th graders at Franklin Middle School in Champaign.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

For college students, December means cramming for final exams. Some schools try to help students keep studying by serving midnight breakfast in the dining halls. But at the University of Illinois, one student group puts their own twist on that tradition.

Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

Students struggling to learn English have traditionally been regarded as a bit of a challenge in your standard public school. But in Urbana, these kids are valued for their ability to help their English-speaking peers learn a second language.

It’s done using mixed classrooms where the teachers speak only Spanish for as much as 90 percent of the day. That percentage ramps down as the kids get older. In the earliest grades, the English-speaking students may not even realize that they’re soaking up a new language.

Dave Heninzel

Patrick Dolan played a major role in shaping the relationship between public school teachers unions and administrators in school districts across the nation, and especially in Illinois. But if you’ve never heard of Patrick Dolan, don’t feel bad. Dolan did his work mainly behind the scenes, in meetings with teachers unions and school administrators. What made him remarkable was that he created peace between these often adversarial parties.

Autumn trees on the University of Maine campus
Courtesy of the University of Maine

Illinois has long been number two in the nation for a rather dubious distinction -- the net out-migration of college students. Now there’s a new program targeting Illinois high school students who want to attend a state flagship university, even if it’s not in Illinois. The catch? You’re going to need to love flannel shirts, lobster, and maybe not come home for Thanksgiving.

group of undocumented students in Capitol
Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

College students who don’t have a Social Security number can’t receive financial aid from public universities in Illinois. But a measure that would give schools the option to provide scholarships or waivers is getting a big push at the statehouse, thanks to the election of Donald Trump.

classroom desks
Carter Staley / NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

 

The stop-gap funding measure approved by lawmakers last spring left community colleges with just 27 percent of their usual state aid. That amount is almost gone. Community colleges in Illinois say they've cut frills, suspended travel, and even laid off teachers. Now they need state lawmakers to come through with funding.

That was the gist of a letter sent last week from the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents​ to the governor and legislative leaders.

 

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