State school budget cuts hit special populations

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The oldest, youngest and neediest of Illinois school children suffered the biggest hits as a reluctant Illinois State Board of Education, on orders from the General Assembly, slashed spending by $475 million.

The cuts represent nearly half of last year’s state spending on such specialty grant programs as alternative and safe schools, early childhood education and Grow Your Own teacher preparation.

The silver lining in this cloud was an increase in general state aid that Gov. Quinn signed into law. It raises the per-pupil “foundation” level by $160 to $6,119. As a result, the net decrease in spending was only $146 million.

Neither state nor Chicago school officials could say what the impact of Tuesday’s cuts would be on Chicago Schools, which face a $475 – and growing – revenue shortfall. A state spokesman said the intention was to spread the pain equally across the state.

The oldest, youngest and neediest of Illinois school children suffered the biggest hits as a reluctant Illinois State Board of Education, on orders from the General Assembly, slashed spending by $475 million.

The cuts represent nearly half of last year’s state spending on such specialty grant programs as alternative and safe schools, early childhood education and Grow Your Own teacher preparation.

The silver lining in this cloud was an increase in general state aid that Gov. Quinn signed into law. It raises the per-pupil “foundation” level by $160 to $6,119. As a result, the net decrease in spending was only $146 million.

Neither state nor Chicago school officials could say what the impact of Tuesday’s cuts would be on Chicago Schools, which face a $475 – and growing – revenue shortfall. A state spokesman said the intention was to spread the pain equally across the state.

As members of the public, including some alternative school students from Chicago, pleaded to have their programs spared, State Board Chairman Jesse Ruiz repeatedly apologized. He urged voters to hold lawmakers accountable in next year’s elections.

The Board of Education posted a line-item breakdown of the budget on its website.

Action included:

  • A $6 million, or 33 percent, cut to alternative and safe schools, which serve former dropouts and students who have been suspended and expelled.

Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, said that these schools already have long waiting lists and will have to turn away hundreds of additional applicants.

“If you cut these programs, these students will have no other place to go and so they will just hit the streets,” he says.

Wuest’s group lost half of the funding it receives from the state for re-enrolling dropouts, as did the truant alternative and optional education program, which provides tutoring and extra support for students struggling to stay in school.

  • A $123 million, or 32 percent, cut to early childhood programs and $1 million cut to mental health intervention and prevention services.

“This budget immediately erases five years of progress in early learning,” Gaylord Gieseke, interim president of Voices for Illinois Children, said in a statement. “It also reverses years of hard work to extend mental health supports to thousands of kids throughout our state.”

  • Elimination of $3 million state funding for the education of homeless children.
  • A $19 million, or 25 percent, cut to programs for English language learners.
  • A $1.8 million, or 50 percent, cut to Grow Your Own, which pays for career changers from low-income and high-minority neighborhoods to acquire education degrees.

Anne Hallett, the program’s executive director, said the cut will be cushioned by earlier financial choices. Money was budgeted last year to cover fall tuition for many of the teacher candidates.

  • A $5.7 million, or 50 percent, cut to the state’s National Board certification program, which provides stipends for teachers who have achieved this gold standard in teaching and helps pay for entry and exam fees for those who want to try.

Career and technical education programs avoided cuts, according to Ruiz, so as to protect federal matching funds.