Illinois’ budget problems leave high school dropouts without help

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As he does almost every year, Jack Wuest of the Alternative Schools
Network brought out lawmakers, state officials and advocates to rev them
up to focus more resources on the often-invisible young people he
champions. As he does almost every year, Jack Wuest of the Alternative Schools Network brought out lawmakers, state officials and advocates to rev them up to focus more resources on the often-invisible young people he champions.
On Monday at a downtown forum entitled “Smart Program Investment,” the picture painted of young jobless dropouts was particularly dire. And the prospect of getting more money to bring them back to school and teach them job skills is also dim.

A huge gap exists between the two, Wuest said. With money to serve about 95,000 young people and recent data that shows some 645,000 truants in Illinois, hundreds of thousands of young people that need support aren’t getting it.

And while truancy in Illinois is skyrocketing, state funding for programs that serve them has declined from about $20 million to $14 million in the past two years.

“When you fund programs for high-risk students, it is a huge investment,” said Wuest. He pointed out that the state spends $292,000 more for dropouts over the course of their lifetime, than for those who have earned a diploma because high school graduates are more likely to have jobs and work, and are less likely to go to prison.

During the recession, young people without diplomas have borne a disproportionate share of the suffering. Two-thirds of Chicagoans who were between 16 and 24 and did not have a high school diploma were out of work in 2009, according to research by the Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. For black dropouts, the situation is even tougher: Nearly 80 percent are unemployed.

In addition to more funding for programs to serve dropouts and students who are suspended and expelled, Wuest wants the Legislature to provide $25 million for the Illinois Hope and Opportunity Pathways through Education program, called IHOPE. The program would provide year-round classes, summer school, and evening courses, as well as community college courses, for dropouts. It was part of Illinois’ proposal for the federal Race to the Top grant program, which was denied.

Wuest’s sentiments were echoed by the passionate endorsements for alternative education by students and a parent. Regina Jones says that before her son began attending Prologue Alternative School, he was mixed up in bad things and she worried about him getting killed.

Now, he’s a sophomore at Central State University.

“My son Patrick put us in a place that paved the way for others in our family,” said Jones, the mother of seven.

Those in the audience seemed touched by stories. But Illinois State Board of Education chairman Jesse Ruiz and four state lawmakers in the audience were dubious about the prospect of more funding. State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), said she doesn’t think a tax increase will be approved. “I don’t see it happening,” she said.

Next year the state is facing another fiscal crisis, Ruiz noted. “When the state board of education has to start parsing out pennies on the dollar, then lives are at stake.”