The spirit of the holidays is all around us. The lights, the chill in the air, the anticipation, and sharing of good cheer with friends and family. It warms my heart every year and reminds me of the one thing I want this year for Illinois students.
They need adequate school funding in their stockings this year, not a lump of coal. The good news is that Illinois has made solid progress in recent years, but the fact remains that because our state failed to provide adequate funding for so long, the system is still funded at less than 75% of adequacy.
Higher education has also dealt with funding issues recently, particularly the Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants program. Illinois’ most recent appropriation for MAP grants is only enough for half of eligible students and the value of MAP grants has not kept pace with inflation. In 2002, a MAP grant covered full tuition and fees at a public university; these days, that same grant covers only about one-third of that cost.
The push for school funding is something I carry with me each day. Teaching has brought me all over the world, from Guyana to Finland to Chicago. In Guyana, which is considered a developing country, the educational resources for my classroom were few and far in between. In Finland, I was astounded by how well funded all schools were, no matter the region, the town, or the neighborhood. Here in Chicago, my classroom actually had fewer resources at the beginning of the year than I had in Guyana because of the lasting effects of inadequate funding. Illinois students deserve better.
In the summer of 2017, Illinois turned a huge corner in school funding by enacting a new, evidence-based funding formula. Under that formula, the most under-funded school districts receive new state dollars first, with no district losing state funding over the previous year. The state also took another step in the direction of funding equity by ending the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) surcharge, which was taking up to $100 million in federal funds from classrooms serving lower-income students.
We obviously have some work to do when it comes to funding education in our state. What we need is well-coordinated action across K-12 and higher education when it comes to funding, and the students are the ones suffering the most from it. Almost half of Illinois community college students need to take remedial classes to learn content that they should have mastered in high school. Each time this happens, students and taxpayers are hit twice: at the high school level, when the subjects should have been taught, and again at the college level, when students must take remedial courses.
When my class of Policy Fellows learned about these issues after meeting and speaking with experts in the field, we formed a series of recommendations for the state. Together, state policymakers and advocates can pursue several policies to ease the burden on Illinois students and taxpayers:
- Continue to increase the level of funding flowing through the Evidence-Based Funding Formula. If Illinois continues to allocate new dollars to the funding formula at the rate of $350 million a year, it could take 20 years to reach funding adequacy. At that pace, today’s newborn will graduate high school without adequate funding being achieved.
- Include elements within the Evidence-Based Funding Formula for pathways, adjusted counselor ratios, and College and Career Coordinators. The Professional Review Panel for the new funding formula should recommend adding a career pathway element to the research-based practices used to establish the amount each district needs to be adequately funded. This pathway element would provide direction to schools as they prioritize their limited resources. The panel should also refine the counselor-to-student ratios, currently 1:250, to reflect the fact that lower-income students and first-generation college-goers need more counseling support. Finally, adding an element reflecting the need for one College and Career Coordinator position per 400 high school students would help schools be proactive in this area.
- Appropriate funding to develop the structure for ongoing programs within key CTE pathways. Centralizing support from policymakers would be low-cost and could have a huge impact within career pathways. Funding tied directly to wage and employment data and providing additional funding to advance CTE courses would not only encourage districts to being prioritizing pipelines for high-demand industries, but also promote CTE pathways instead of one-off courses. Agriculture Education is currently the only pathway that has its own dedicated line in the state budget, and that sector has been able to develop a broad statewide infrastructure and more specific concentrations within Agriculture, like Agribusiness and Mechanics. We can do the same for other high-demand CTE pathways.
- Increase funding for MAP grants in order to serve more students and increase the amount of the grants. The recently enacted budget adjusted the timing for MAP grants, extending them from one to four years, which is a positive step. But more needs to be done by leaders in Springfield to provide students with certainty regarding this vital resource for their post-secondary education, including a boost in funding for MAP grants. Furthermore, increasing the amount of each grant would go hand-in-hand with an increase in the program’s funding. As costs continue to rise for Illinois college students, MAP grants must rise to meet them so that cost does not deter our state’s students from continuing their education after high school.
There is a lot to unpack here, so I encourage you to read this entire section in the Stop Illinois Brain Drain report. My colleagues from the Policy Fellowship appreciate your interest in this report and urge you to continue your advocacy for Illinois students. Contact your legislators and tell them to read the full report and get moving on these issues!