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Thomas Clatterbuck

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The GI Bill has been one of the most successful government benefit programs in history. By providing veterans an opportunity to attend college at low cost, generations of veterans have been able to successfully transition back into the civilian workforce. The recently passed Forever GI Bill helped expand how veterans and their families can take advantage of their benefits.

But like any government bureaucracy, the rollout of the new GI Bill has had some hiccups. To learn more about how the program is working in the real world, Congressman Rodney Davis (R-13) hosted an education roundtable in the new UIS Student Union with representatives from universities and community colleges in the 13th. Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN), who chairs the House’s CA Committee, was a special guest.

Compliance costs were one of the main issues colleges face when dealing with the VA. Chairman Roe referenced a Vanderbilt study that says ensuring compliance for just one student can cost $10,000 per year. The variety of systems being used to process student data is part of the problem. The VA does not use the National Student Clearinghouse, one of the main reporting tools used for other functions. This adds to the regulatory burden. A lack of clear rules is sometimes an issue as well. Often, the VA will issue policy advisories, rather than rules. Some participants felt these advisories were created without sufficient input from those who will be affected by them.

Unfunded mandates also pose their own problems. Fighting suicide in the veteran population is a worthy cause, and colleges can be on the front lines of that. However, as one participant noted, it everything costs money. When the state fails to provide funding for good programs, those cost gets passed on to students.

But despite the issues the schools brought up, there was also good news. In pervious GI Bills, the service time requirements did not account for early discharge due to injury. Now, individuals who receive a Purple Heart will be eligible for education benefits regardless of how long they served. Additionally, rumors that some veterans would be unable to transfer their benefits to their children due to service length were dispelled. Both Davis and Roe indicated they gained useful policy insights from the meeting, especially on expediting the work-study funding process.

Senior strategist, statehouse reporter and political correspondent for Springfield Daily. Graduate of District 117 and UIS. Thomas covers stories in both Morgan and Sangamon Counties, as well as statewide politics.

Education

District 186 unveils Phase One of “Our Schools, Our Future” master plan

Thomas Clatterbuck

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proposed improvements to SHS

The “Our Schools, Our Future” plan took another step forward with the release of the Master Plan document. “Our Schools, Our Future” is the comprehensive facilities plan for District 186. Complied over years of research and nine community engagement events, this plan lays out a long-range vision for the district’s buildings and campuses.

After reviewing the feedback from last’s years community engagement events, the district has released the Phase 1 for implementing their vision. The plan lists proposed improvements at 33 district facilities over the next ten to twelve years. Some of the changes are small. Enos Elementary was allocated just $41,000 for security upgrades. But most of the improvements are quite substantial. Schools like Fairview Elementary and Washington Middle School are being expanded to replace the modular classrooms that they currently rely on. Springfield High and Lanphier High Schools are both slated for “comprehensive reconstruction.” The high school projects will cost over $40 million each. In total, there are more than $190 million in planned improvements around the district.

How will it be paid for?

The district is looking at a number of ways of paying for these projects. Some of it can be covered by “Health Life Safety” (HLS) funding. HLS funds can only be used for specific projects; typically those necessary for the safety of students and faculty. But the district is really pinning their hopes on the proposed sales tax increase. Districts in Sangamon County have called for a one percent sales tax increase to be used for facilities improvements. Money raised from the tax will be distributed to districts in the county on a per capita basis. That question will be on the November ballot.

You can learn more about the “Our Schools, Our Future” plan and leave feedback on the district’s website, or click here to read the Phase One plan.

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Education

Thousands of Illinois students get private school aid in new program’s first year

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Illinois’ program offering state tax credits for donations to help students go to private schools have given tuition assistance to thousands of students, but officials say the new program still faces challenges and opposition.

In its first year, the Invest in Kids program is going to help nearly 5,600 students with tuition assistance that will send them to a private school of their choosing. The program offers donors a 75 percent state tax credit. The money is then distributed to students who apply. Demand for tuition aid has outpaced donations. Empower Illinois, one of the organizations that distribute the money, said more than 30,000 students still are waiting for tuition assistance.

Empower Illinois Executive Director Anthony Holter said the students applying are saying that their local public school isn’t their ideal choice.

“Those are not best fits for their child and they want to seek another option, but can’t make that happen, or it’s very difficult to make that happen,” he said.

The program was passed as part of the sweeping school funding reform legislation that was signed into law last fall. At the time, Democrats cried foul on the addition of the program just before it was finalized.

Since January, the program brought in $44 million in donations, far short of the $100 million limit.

The money is split by regions of the state. Cook County, its own region, has secured $35 million in pledged donations. The rest of the state’s regions combined received less than $10 million.

“We are truly grateful to the donors of this program,” said Larry Daly, principal of St. Teresa High School in Decatur. “This program allows families in the Decatur area the option to choose the education that best fits their needs. For this, we are truly thankful.”

Even if supporters did hit the limit set by lawmakers, $100 million wouldn’t be enough to help every student who applied for a grant.

“We have demand that would far exceed the $100 million cap,” Holter said.

Empower has hired additional fundraisers in an effort to meet the demand. Money being donated up to the end of this year would go to a student for this school year.

Democrats have criticized the program, saying it uses state money that should go to public schools. If Democrat J.B. Pritzker is elected governor, he’s said he would end the program.

“It’s a top-of-mind thing for a lot of folks on the donor side as well as the parent side,” Holter said. “The fundraising can be a challenge when people are concerned whether or not they’ll get the deduction that was maybe a motivation for them in the first place.”

The program is otherwise set to expire in 2024.

The donations would not be fully deductible on federal filings, Holter said, because the 75 percent credit would have to be subtracted.

Article by Cole Lauterbach with Illinois News Network. For more INN News visit ILnews.org

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Education

186 passes compliance check with flying colors

Thomas Clatterbuck

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Illinois has a lot of laws. Public schools have a wide array of rules and procedures set by the state that they need to follow. Fortunately, District 186 has kept up-to-date with the state’s policies, and was endorsed for the highest rating after its biannual audit by the Regional Office of Education.

The audit looks at five areas: students, policy and governance, instructional programs, health life and safety, and staff and personnel training. 186 improved in many key areas compared with 2013, especially in staff and personnel training. In 2013, 18 percent of teachers were in a position they were not officially qualified for. Last year it was zero. The audit did find that a large number of teachers had not been evaluated. However, this was attributed to the timing of the audit, rather than a lack of compliance.

While the district has taken positive steps to ensure all students have qualified educators, the teacher shortage continues to leave positions unfilled. The state is implanting some emergency rules to help alleviate the shortage, including expanded reciprocity for teaching licenses and loosening the rules on substitute teaching. However, the most difficult to staff positions, including special education, continue to see a lack of qualified applicants.

You can watch the full meeting in the player.

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