by Jamey Dunn
When Tom Bremer got word that he would not be back teaching art at Elgin High School next year, he was frustrated. He taught there four years and worked with other art teachers at the school to create a photography, cartooning and animation program that teaches students to use new technology as well as writing and art criticism.
Bremer’s students post their work online and blog about it on the class Web site. He says he encourages them to express themselves in the informal medium. So it makes sense that Bremer turned to blogging after he got the bad news. “When I came home that Friday, I was upset,” Bremer says. “I just thought it would be a good idea to start voicing my story.”
Bremer is one of thousands of Illinois teachers who received layoff notices in March. Gov. Pat Quinn estimates about 17,000 people working in elementary and high schools will be laid off if legislators do not approve a tax increase he says is necessary to avoid $1.3 billion in cuts to education. The Illinois State Board of Education estimates about 13,000 in K-12 education will lose their jobs even if the state makes no cuts. James Russell, a spokesman for the Illinois Association of School Boards, says while in some cases local property tax revenues are dropping, those 13,000 layoffs are primarily a result of districts not being able to count on state funds.
“Almost every district in the state is owed money from previous commitments and the previous budget. … This year they don’t know if they are going to get the money that they are owed.”
A large share of the job cuts will include service professionals such as counselors and social workers, as well as noncertified workers such as custodians and lunchroom workers. Districts were required to notify teachers of layoffs by the end of March. However, they can wait longer to notify other employees. Not everybody who gets a notice will be out of a job. Districts can ask employees to come back if they can find the money to pay them between now and next school year.
“They’re trying to come up for their staffing numbers for next August based on what they think the state budget may be,” says Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the State Board of Education.
As a result of the layoffs, students will face larger class sizes and fewer options when choosing their courses. Sports, fine arts classes, after-school programs and field trips will also be cut.
Teachers who received pink slips have to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing if they have a job next year. If they choose to stay in Illinois, they will be looking for work in a market with few jobs and thousands of potential new applicants.
But the same is true nationally. States across the country — California, Florida, Michigan, New York and South Carolina, to name a few — are making layoffs in education to cope with the recession and budget deficits.
Bremer says he wanted to create a forum for those teachers. “I wanted it to be positive. I didn’t want it to be just about me complaining.” So he started a Web page called No Teacher Left Behind, where he writes about his experience and encourages others to send him their stories.
“When you see in the paper 13,000 teachers … when you see that number, it doesn’t really mean anything,” he said. Bremer is trying to appeal to teachers throughout the nation to raise awareness about school funding and put human stories to the layoff numbers.
“We can’t have teachers getting laid off every year and worrying about what’s going to happen to their futures,” Bremer says.
Bremer has been getting media attention, something he said he wasn’t expecting. He was featured in a story in the Daily Herald, and many of the online comments were negative. One commenter sarcastically implied that Bremer’s class was not necessary and should be cut. On his blog, Bremer invited the commenter to come participate in the class and then decide.
“Art, design, animation and technology are all around us; these are the things I teach. I love it, I’m proud of it, I deserve the money that I make, and I’ll be sad to leave,” Bremer wrote on his blog.
He says some students come to school primarily because they enjoy art classes. “I certainly believe that art classes get kids in the door. They show up because they look forward to that period in the day when they can create something.” Bremer’s district alone cut more than 20 art teachers and plans to reduce art, music and physical education to half-hour sessions.
Bremer says he wants to give politicians and the public an indication of the impact the layoffs have on teachers and students so they might understand the need for more funding.
“It’s a political gamble to say that we need more money in education. You know it’s bad if Gov. Quinn is asking for a tax increase in an election year,” he says.
“Sometimes I wonder if teachers are being played as pawns. … I don’t know if that serves anyone’s interest.”
In his budget address Quinn gave lawmakers two options: Raise income tax rates by 1 percentage point, calling the increase a “surcharge for education,” or accept drastic cuts for schools.
“I am making this cut [to education] with the greatest of reluctance and only because our current fiscal emergency leaves me no choice. These cuts are unavoidable. They’re the consequence of a bipartisan refusal year after year to confront fiscal reality,” Quinn said.
Quinn said $1 billion in federal stimulus dollars deferred massive cuts last fiscal year, but that money is not coming again. “It was crystal clear that the votes are not there in the Congress to extend the federal stimulus for education. It’s not going to happen. … When I came back to Illinois [from Washington, D. C.], I told our budget people we can’t write that in. We will not have a billion dollars that was very helpful to us in the past fiscal year, the one we’re in now.”
The increase would push the personal income tax from 3 percent to 4 percent and the corporate from 4.8 percent to 5.8 percent. Quinn’s budget director, David Vaught, estimates it would generate $2.8 billion, which he says Quinn intends to spend wholly on education.
Some of the money would go toward the approximately $850 million in bills the state owes schools, according to the State Board of Education. After education funding is restored and the bills paid, about $650 million would be left over.
Quinn has not said where that money would go. State Superintendent Christopher Koch asked for $1 billion more in education funding for next fiscal year. Quinn spokesman Robert Reed says the governor plans to fund education at the same levels as the current fiscal year if his proposed tax increase passes. So if the State Board of Education projections are correct, even with a tax increase, thousands of jobs may still be cut.
However, the idea of raising taxes is gaining little support in the General Assembly, especially before the general election in November.
Last year, the Senate passed House Bill 174, which included an income tax increase and was intended to revamp the way education is funded. The bill was never called for a vote in the House because it lacked the votes to pass. So Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago says a new tax increase proposal would have to start in the House. Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, a fellow Democrat, says that a tax increase would not pass in the House without Republican support.
Republicans are skeptical of the governor’s “surcharge for education” because Quinn proposed drastic cuts to human services during last year’s budget negotiations. While many of them did not pan out, the state is millions of dollars behind on payments to social service providers.
“What’s disappointing is, he essentially proposes to do the same things as he did last year. Proposed cuts that we know he’s not going to make … record borrowing or a tax increase and no reform to the system … to the government that is fundamentally broken,” says Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican.
House Minority Leader Tom Cross of Oswego says he wants to see more details of Quinn’s proposed tax increase. “How’s he going to use the money? Who is it going to be assessed against? He says he needs a billion on education. What’s he going to do with the balance? … It lacks specificity all around the board,” he says.
Cross accuses Quinn of using cuts and layoffs as a political tactic designed to upset voters. “No one wants to see K-12 decimated the way he’s talking about. I would suggest to you that at the end of the day this isn’t going to happen, and at the end of the day he will not introduce a budget that provides for [$1.3 billion] in cuts to education. This is a scare tactic. This is designed to get members of the General Assembly intimidated by voters.”
David Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says he disagrees that Quinn’s proposed cuts are a ploy to push through a tax increase. He says that because education is such a large portion of the budget, cuts would have to be made there for any meaningful reduction.
“The problem isn’t where you can cut. We’ve cut as far as we can cut. …We need new revenue,” he says. “Right now, instead of talking about what we can improve, we are talking about trying to hold on to what we have.”
Some legislators are pushing to let schools stop complying with unfunded mandates, education requirements that the state does not provide the money to execute. These mandates can range from requiring a specific amount of physical education time each week to teaching certain historical or cultural subjects.
Many schools have already appealed to the legislature for permission to cut back on physical education and the number of hours of behind-the-wheel instruction they must provide in driver’s education programs.
“Some of those things cost real dollars, and maybe school districts, if they are given some relief over the next two to three years at least, they will be able to bring some of those teachers back using money that otherwise would go to some of these mandates that haven’t been funded,” says Republican Rep. Roger Eddy of Hutsonville.
The General Assembly has asked the State Board of Education to provide by the first of this month a list of mandates that could be temporarily suspended to save money.
“People are trying to figure out a way to consolidate — maybe knock off having [physical education] — save that money and put it somewhere else,” Chicago Democrat Sen. James Meeks says. Meeks, who is also the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says childhood obesity is a concern when considering such changes. He adds that, while suspending mandates could give school districts more options on spending, the responsibility to fully fund education lies with the General Assembly.
It is into this bleak environment of proposed cuts to staff and classes that new graduates from education programs emerge this spring. Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the first full year of a program called Week of Transition, meant to help new teachers make the leap from college to the classroom. Jan Waggoner, director of teacher education, says this year’s focus is the challenging job market. “New teachers are facing from 200 or 300 to 600 applications for a single job,” she says.
Waggoner says she encourages new graduates to substitute teach and volunteer in schools as tutors or read to students. She says being known in a district could lead to an interview for a teaching position. “Before you get to the interview stage, you’ve got to get on that short list.”
Waggoner adds that extra time spent in the classroom will turn the students she advises into better teachers. “The more time that teacher candidates are in schools, the more equipped they are to having a more successful beginning of their teaching careers.”
Joelle Beck got a year of teaching under her belt before she got her layoff notice. She had come back to teach high school English in O’Fallon, the district where she graduated from high school. Her family is there, and she and her husband are expecting their first baby in the fall. She says while she doesn’t want to leave O’Fallon, she and many of her young peers who also lost their jobs are looking for work in Missouri.
“I really love what I do. I do bring energy. We’re energetic. We’re right out of college. We are excited. We want to be teaching,” she says. “You do lose something when you take out a whole generation of teachers.”
Bremer says he plans to stay in Illinois. He is looking for work and says he can’t count on the Elgin district to bring him back next fall. “I think there is a very, very slim hope. I cannot hold on to hope without being realistic. I think that would be irresponsible.
“If the state comes through with money, I am sure there’s a chance. … I am certainly not waiting for the phone call.”
Illinois Issues, May 2010