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Roeder: Rauner’s cuts aim at higher ed, hit the poor

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Let’s assume that you are the governor of a diverse state but not terribly sympathetic to everyday people. Inconceivable, I know, but hear me out. Let’s say that despite your sworn duty you think government is a pain to the deserving upper crust, that all it does is take from your kind and redistribute it to slothful unions and the grasping, uncivilized poor.

How could you strike back? First, you’d do everything in your power to curb your government’s ability to spend money, such as by blocking responsible budget deals and denying it the revenue needed for basic functions. You like “starving the beast’’ and how it immediately affects schools and social services.

But then you do something that really hurts for the longer term and shows everybody who’s boss. You go after the public universities and community colleges, those dangerous purveyors of marketable credentials.

Sound like anybody we know?

Gov. Bruce Rauner has done more to disable Illinois government than to set it on the right course since taking office in January 2015. For some of his supporters, especially the billionaires who have joined Rauner in the outright purchase of the Illinois Republican Party, that’s probably just fine. Everybody else has to deal with the effects, which include a dysfunctional, deadbeat state government that scares off the private sector.

But there is nothing more calculated or cynical in Rauner’s attack on government than what he’s done to higher education.

Illinois has nine public universities and 48 community colleges, a system built up over decades of care that speaks well for political and civic leadership of the past. Compared with other states, the system has performed well. One example is that it ranks No. 1 in graduation rates for part-time students and adult learners. In all the functions of state government, is there any type of institution that has done more to bring people of modest incomes into good jobs with a future, and to let them prove that they’ve earned their place, instead of getting it through connections or birthright?

State higher education is functioning on two recent spending bills, a bare-bones version for fiscal 2016 ending last July and a “stopgap” budget intended to cover the first half of the current fiscal year. Together, the spending totals about $1.6 billion. But James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said the appropriation would have to be nearly $4 billion just to keep the system even with its funding level from fiscal 2015.

In other words, the system is running on less than half of what it got before Rauner grabbed hold of the budget. Damaging cuts have occurred at all schools, enrollment is falling and their credit ratings have been cut. The financially weakest school, Chicago State University, is threatened with a loss of accreditation, so new and returning students are making other plans. Its enrollment this year is off 25 percent and its freshman class, all of 86 students, is a tenth the size of five years ago.

Last May, Jack Thomas, president of Western Illinois University, described the long-term impact in testimony to an Illinois House committee. “We are on the verge of a complete collapse of the higher education system that is sending our intellectual capital out of the state,” he said.

Since then, his school and other regional universities in Illinois have felt added strain. Western, Northern and Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois-Carbondale all have seen enrollment declines that are among the steepest of Midwest schools in their size categories, said the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. These schools tend to need state support more than the flagship University of Illinois. Eastern’s showing—an enrollment drop of 13 percent—was especially bad.

Another casualty is the state’s scholarship aid for low-income students, the Monetary Assistance Program (MAP), which in a good year can help about 130,000 students, less than half the eligible applicants. With the budget crisis, the program limped through the spring 2016 semester. The state reports there is no MAP money for the 2016-2017 school year. The average family income of a MAP recipient is $32,000 and most are first-generation college students. They’re trying to get ahead when most jobs advertised in Illinois require at least a bachelor’s degree.

Education officials hold out hope for more funding once the General Assembly reconvenes after the Nov. 8 election. Rauner has said he wants education funding to be part of “grand compromise.”

Can Rauner be trusted to side with fairness and upward mobility? He’s the same guy who reached out to moderate voters in his 2014 campaign by disavowing any “social agenda” common to right-wing Republicans. Little did we know that he'd push his own narrow-minded agenda that makes no room for the poor and the working class.

David Roeder is a Research Fellow at Innovation Illinois, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to progressive public policies that advance equitable economic growth. He was a longtime business writer and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and served in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.


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