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Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as Illinois Budget Trims Funds For K-12, Higher Education

Illinois Budget Trims Funds For K-12, Higher Education

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With the state's economy hemorrhaging, Illinois officials said they had no choice but to perform surgery with a blunt scalpel on the education budget for next year. As a result, programs ranging from special education and free lunches to grants for needy college students felt deep cuts.

Illinois' K-12 public schools will see their overall budget for fiscal 2003 slashed by $176 million, a drop of nearly 4 percent from last year. Meanwhile, the state's higher education institutions will lose an estimated $147 million, or almost 6 percent.

But when the bleeding stopped, some education officials conceded that the pain could have been even worse, given that legislators were forced to make up for a $1.4 billion budget shortfall in a general fund budget of $22.3 billion. "The results are mixed," said Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "The districts with lots of property-tax wealth ... will do all right. The schools that don't have that will have a problem."

Local governments will almost certainly be forced to respond to the lost revenue with tax increases, and colleges will look to tuition hikes, some predicted.

Cuts that will be felt in public school classrooms were seen almost across the board, said Lee Milner, a spokesman for the state board of education.

Some of the reductions targeted reading, math, and literacy programs, which will lose $14.5 million, a drop of about 16 percent. Other cuts hit "academic difficulty" initiativesefforts to help struggling schools meet state standardswhich were reduced by $10.9 million, or 8 percent from the previous year. Grants to school districts for early intervention, textbook loans, school safety, and other programs were also trimmed.

"It's going to be a difficult year, and [districts] will probably have to supplement their budgets with local dollars," Mr. Milner said.

The Chicago public schools saw a decrease of $33 million in state funding, a 2 percent decrease in a total budget for next year of $1.2 billion, said John Maiorca, the system's budget director.

The school board already has approved a property tax increase to make up some of the lost revenue, he said, though that money couldn't plug all the holes.

Chicago also plans to cut 370 administrative positions in the coming school year, he said. The schools have implemented a salary freeze for administrative personnel, and cut professional and consulting services, he added.

"It's not really tied to any one program," Mr. Maiorca said. "It hits us across the board."

Colleges Hit

Illinois is not alone in laboring through budget woes. At least 12 states have targeted K-12 education for cuts in next year's budgets, according to a recent study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a research organization for state policy, in Denver. Eleven states are planning to cut higher education spending, the report found. Rightly or wrongly, many lawmakers believed state universities had other ways to come up with money. "They can, and often do, resort to other sources of revenue, which are tuition and fees," Mr. Perez said.

One of the largest cuts to Illinois' higher education funding will come in the state's Monetary Award Program, which provides grants to college students. The budget zeroed out an estimated $38 million in grant money devoted to students entering their fifth year of school, said Don J. Sevener, a spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Some of the state's public universities will try to make up that grant funding on their own, but it won't be easy, he said, adding that several will have to consider laying off faculty or staff members due to budget shortfalls.

"We can't cast blame, because clearly the state is in a pretty dire situation," he said. "But these cuts will be difficult to endure for students."

Still, educators won some budget victories. Lawmakers approved a $1 billion bond to help schools pay for construction, replenishing a fund that had dwindled to about $70 million. Schools are ranked by need and put on a waiting list. About $500 million of the bond money—which is not part of the normal state budget—will be available for the 2003 budget year, Mr. Milner said.

Another measure approved by the legislature this year would devote $1.1 million to the 7,400-student Granite City school district, near East St. Louis, Ill., to help make up for lost tax revenue after a steel company went bankrupt. The measure, which also would allow other districts to apply for similar aid, had not yet been signed into law by Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, as of late last week.

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Pages 31,34

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