The candidates' answers have been lightly edited.
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Over the last decade, college tuition has skyrocketed. This jump in tuition costs has made college less and less affordable for families throughout Ilinois. During this same period, the state has simultaneously decreased the amount of funding it provides our state universities, What, if anything, can the state do to help more people afford college?
Biss: Today the state of Illinois is sending less money to University of Illinois than it spent in 1992. Not inflation adjusted, not adjusted for the growth of the student body, just in regular old dollars of sending less money than we send in 1992.
When you realize historically the state was supposed to have been the major source of funding for the public universities, you start to understand how the tuitions have skyrocketed so quickly.
First of all, I serve on two appropriation committees, we write the elementary and secondary education budget, and the higher education budget. And then I serve on the pension committee. All we’ve seen for the last two years is that in every area of programmatic spending that this community relies upon and believes in – in education and higher education – we’ve been making cuts and cuts because pensions are doling out more and more money.
So I hate to bring it back to that but there’s no way out of this fiscal mess that allows us to appropriately fund our priorities without handling the pension problem.
The other really remarkable fact, Illinois has a really good program, it’s called the MAP program. It helps support tuition for in state students at public and private universities when they have financial need. Just 10 years ago, that program met all of the need for every student who applied. Today half of the students are pushed out altogether and the other half who have access, they only have half of their needs met.
We are seeing this tuition spiral and spiral as the state is pulling its support out, so we need to get the state’s fiscal situation under control. We have to put much more meaningful management controls on the University of Illinois, which of course is the future of the state. We also have to manage the scholarship programs so we really make sure the money is going in the hands of those most needed and best use it on those likely to use that tuition money to then eventually graduate and then become successful participants in the workforce.
Farkas: The cost of college have skyrocketed, I think it’s been about 7 percent a year, while inflation has gone up by 2 or 3 percent a year. So we definitely have to use our leverage, I think as a state, to try and hold those costs down and hold the colleges accountable.
I think the colleges, again, are trying to do too many things. There are obviously a lot of costs in college that may not have to be there. I think certainly the loans are making capital more available to people but at the same time pensions and Medicare are swallowing up, right now, 53 percent of the budget. So if we don’t fix those things first, it’s not going to matter, because in five to seven years, it’ll swallow almost 100 percent of the budget.
If we can get our economy working, get more and more business, or get people jobs, the cost of going to college would be a lot more manageable. So I don’t see, again, any way around this except to fix the most pressing problems financially wrong with the state first, but certainly college costs have to be addressed.
I think there’s an extension on obviously keeping the interest rates low ... but here in Illinois it’s about $14,000 a year for tuition or fees for University of Illinois, which is one of the highest. I think when I was back in college, it might have been $5,000. So again, keeping control of these costs and trying to do something by using the leverage of the state to keep the cost down is the only way we are going to break those costs down for citizens.
Biss: The other thing that’s important to say is, you have to look at our mix of colleges. Illinois has fewer, as a share of the enrollment, students in four-year public universities than most states. More students in four-year private schools, which are more expensive but also more students in community college.
I think we have to fuse that community college leg of the higher-educations pool to help do two things. First of all, it’s straight up affordability, which is very important. Second of all, it’s basic function of matching employees with the workforce. The days where half the people no longer need to go to college to get a job are gone, but also the days where half of the people need to go to a conventional four-year college to get a job, they are gone, as well.
In Illinois, local property taxes provide the majority of the money for schools. Some have argued this funding system results in a large discrepancy in the amount of money each school has to educate our students. Would you be in favor of changing how schools K through 12 are funded in Illinois in order to level the playing field?
Farkas: I think the property tax system is severely flawed in how we fund schools. I think it’s very destructive for taxpayers as well. To me, the property tax system is very destructive in that it’s based on a value system and no one knows the value of their house. It gives too much control to the local taxing bodies to basically set a value that’s fictitious on your home; no one knows the cost. So, we need to start there and look at lowering the cost of property tax across the board.
I’m in favor of a system where we take the value out of the home and put it on something flat that measures it on the size of your lot, or something like that, and then look at school fees. But in terms of funding for the entire state, I’d also would rather see it as some sort of small fee being income taxed. I do think the discrepancy is not good, the way we fund it across the state. I think here in the suburbs, we probably get 90 percent of our funding from local taxes, and the downstate schools or in the city are getting maybe 5 percent from the local taxes. I’m looking at the district here in District 9, and everyone can admit again, their property taxes are very high and I’m not sure what the best way is to get that down right away.
Biss: So, the Illinois-funded system has two qualities. One it’s very reliant on property taxes, much more than most states. It varies from year to year, but we are always in the top five of how reliant we are on property taxes for school funding. And that has all kinds of crazy consequences including this inequity, which is very damaging, not just for those who are victims of the underfunded schools but also for whole state. It slows down our opportunity for economic growth and it slows down our opportunity for economic mobility, which is really what the American dream is supposed to be about.
But there’s also something else problematic with school funding in Illinois and that is, our formula is broken. Our formula was designed for a time when there was a funding advisory board that would decide based on empirical data, how much money was needed for our students. We’ve moved way away from that and as we've moved away from that the funding system has been distorted to its breaking point. We prorate this, we increase that, we inflate that. There’s something called the PTELL adjustment, which is now 35 percent of school funding. Probably most of you have never even heard of the PTELL adjustment. It’s a sign of how broken our funding system is. All we need to do is just wipe the table clean and start again. But there’s a few basic principals.
First of all, it's certainly the case that property taxpayers are not in the position to bear more. Second of all, the pace of property taxes needs to be levied in a way more transparent fashion. And third of all, you have to have a system that has adequacy and some amount of equity because that creates a level playing field, opportunity for economic growth and opportunity for economic mobility, as well.
Farkas: While I certainly agree the property tax is not transparent, as I tried to say that at the beginning. I think the way we have property taxes, you get your bill, you look at it, you don’t know what you are paying for, police, fire, schools, it’s all in there. It’s all very hard to read, so I definitely favor some way we could look at that bill and know exactly what we are paying for. I’d support starting from scratch, a property tax levy system and how we fund schools.
There are many failing high schools in our state with high dropout rates, low test scores and a lack of basic safety. Would you be in favor of any type of school voucher system in which the state would help low income parents pay for their children to attend private schools or allow parents to send their children to schools out of their district?
Biss: So regarding the first part, a voucher system to pay for private schools, I don’t support that and here’s why. I think when you are studying these questions, here’s where you have to start. You have to start with the question of: What’s your goal? What are you trying to build?
My vision of a public school system that works for Illinois is one that has high quality educational opportunity for everybody in the state regardless of where they live, regardless of where they were born.
If you place a voucher system, it starts to say, ‘Hold on we are giving up public schools here, offering people to buy into the private school system because they know the public school system is failing.’ First of all, you’ve given up on that vision. Second of all, in doing so, you’ve basically condemned anybody left in those districts whose parents don’t have the initiative to take advantage of those voucher programs. So I don’t think that’s the way to go, but I do think that a lot of the aspects that you are looking to are important and choice among public schools is a terrifc idea.
I think looking at the specific schools that are most struggling and having aggressive turnaround programs is very important. Right now the State Board of Education in Illinois has taken over our two most failing schools districts – East St. Louis and North Chicago. And takeover means takeover, they’ve disempowered the school board, they go and they put in new management and they start over from scratch, and goodness knows, those districts needed it.
Unfortunately, those aren’t the only two districts that needed it. What we’ve done in our state budget is we’ve basically been in triage mode, and as a result, we’ve cut everything that didn’t feel like it was going straight into classrooms. We said we are going to protect money into the classroom but we’ll cut everything else we can find, like money to support turnaround programs. So now we have a very well constructed turnaround program the State Board operates, only we’ve cut the funding for the travel so the people who would be doing the program can’t drive to the school district in question. We need to be much more strategic about how we target, focus on and then turnaround those failing schools.
Farkas: I don’t think we’d condemn the people in the city school districts to failing schools. I’d be a big supporter of vouchers. I don’t see why we would be afraid of that. I love choice. I’m a pro-choice person. I’m for providing options. I don’t think it would remove any burden from any of the other students left there.
I’d be a big supporter of the vouchers in the city and in the suburbs. I think a voucher program gives parents the choice to decide which school they want to go, whether it be a private or public school. I know the public schools up here are great, that’s why we all moved here to the suburbs, and there are not a lot of problems here with the schools. But I would still want to have all of the citizens have the choice to go to the school they want and have the money follow them if need be.
Biss: I grew up a Jewish kid in southern Indiana and there were not going to be private school options where I grew up that were not fundamentally unworkable for me. That’s just one example, obviously, it’s just one anecdote. But I think it’s an important point regarding what happens when you start to rely on the private school system to bail out a failing public school system. When our public school systems are failing, our solution should be to fix public schools.
Check back on Patch Friday to see where the candidates stand on jobs, economy and Medicaid.
- Senate District 9 Candidates on the Pension System