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IL School Arts, Sports, Preschool Programs on Chopping Block

The Promise to Play, Preschool for All program serves children from birth to three in suburban Palatine.  Courtesy of: ecdec.org
The Promise to Play, Preschool for All program serves children from birth to three in suburban Palatine. Courtesy of: ecdec.org
May 20, 2013

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Many Illinois educators are having a difficult time planning for the next school year because of uncertain funding. According to the Illinois Board of Education, the state cut more than $500 million from schools this year. At the Unity Point School District in Jackson County, that means a loss of $500 per student.

According to the district superintendent, Dr. Lori James Gross, for the past several years state budget cuts have forced them to make so many layoffs that now they have to consider cutting such things as music and sports.

"We're going to have to start looking at everything from academics to our extracurricular programs, whether or not we can maintain a fine arts program or whether or not we can maintain an athletics program," Gross declared.

Jackson County is not alone. Chicago is trying to close schools, and state House Speaker Mike Madigan says two-thirds of Illinois school districts are in a budget deficit, even after layoffs and program cuts.

Advocates are calling on lawmakers to use the last days of the spring session to restore education funding by passing proposals that cut corporate tax loopholes, restructure state debt, and fix what they call its broken pension system.

Regarding early childhood education, budget analysts say, for every $1 million cut, 250 children have to be turned away. Kathy Villano, project director for state-funded "Preschool for All" programs in northwest suburban Chicago, said they've sustained years of cuts, while the number of low-income families who need services continues to grow.

"So, it creates a worried pool of teachers. It creates a worried pool of families," she characterized the situation. "There's a little bit of anxiety as the General Assembly continues to struggle with budgets and continues to struggle with decision making."

The children's advocacy group, Voices for Illinois Children, has crunched the numbers. According to the group's fiscal policy director, Larry Joseph, it's not as if there is no money. Cutting unnecessary corporate tax breaks, he said, could bring in $450 million a year, and restructuring the state debt to pay old bills could save more than $1 billion. He wants lawmakers to think beyond the current crisis.

"If we don't address the pension funding issue, we will continue to have big problems," Joseph warned. "If we allow the current income tax rates to roll back, we are going to have a very big problem."

A portion of the latest income tax increase is set to expire in January 2015. Governor Pat Quinn's office says the state loses $17 million for each day that lawmakers delay passing pension reform. In contrast, University of Chicago economist Paul Heckman estimates that for every single dollar invested in early childhood education the state gains seven to ten dollars in return.

More information is at Voices4Kids.org and at HeckmanEquation.org.

Mary Anne Meyers, Public News Service - IL