Bernard Schoenburg: Rauner talks up higher ed, but has cut funding

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Is Gov. BRUCE RAUNER sending mixed messages about higher education?

“I want to put more resources into our state university system — Western, Eastern, Southern, ISU, U of I,” Rauner said Wednesday at a rural community economic development conference in downtown Springfield. “They are economic engines in our communities, and I’m going to be advocating with them to help expand their footprint around the state — open branches, open affiliates, make connections in our communities outside of their core campus, so we can create jobs and more educational opportunities … in a dozen, 15, 18, communities around the state.”

But during his term as governor, he has proposed budgets that cut higher-education funding, and colleges and universities are among institutions hit hardest by the state budget impasse that is in its 21st month. That impasse involves the General Assembly led by Democrats who haven’t passed a balanced budget as they have disagreed with Rauner’s “turnaround agenda” designed to change the state’s business and political climates.

In fiscal 2015, which included Rauner’s first six months in office and ended June 30, 2015, operating costs and direct payments to the higher-education system were nearly $1.95 billion. And with higher ed not getting payments via court order or continuing resolutions, like state employees and some other parts of government, that funding fell to $600 million in stopgap funding in fiscal 2016, and about $1 billion in the current fiscal year — 2017. But while the fiscal year goes on until June 30, stopgap funding ran out Dec. 31, so colleges and universities are now running on sources including tuition, but not state funding.

When Rauner proposed his first full-year budget in the spring 2015 session, his higher-ed proposal was for $1.59 billion, which was a 20 percent decrease overall and a 31.5 percent cut to universities. And when he vetoed the entire fiscal 2016 budget passed by the legislature — Democrats said they wanted to negotiate with Rauner to fill a multibillion-dollar hole, but no agreement was ever reached — higher ed was left with nothing except later-passed stopgap money.

Even in the budget he proposed this year for fiscal 2018, which begins July 1, Rauner is proposing only up to 90 percent of what was received in fiscal 2015 — with the plan being provision of funding at the 85 percent level with up to 5 percent more based on performance, such as degrees granted and graduation rates.

Such performance-based funding predated Rauner, said his education secretary, BETH PURVIS, but the 5 percent level is an increase in the amount involved. He’s also asking for a 10 percent increase in the monetary award program — MAP grants — to help low-income students afford college. That program ended up getting funded in fiscal 2016, but not in the current fiscal 2017.

Of course, any funding will need agreement with the legislature.

And increased pension costs, on top of operating costs, are another factor, Purvis said.

When he met with the editorial board of The State Journal-Register last month, Rauner said he was “personally committed to getting more money into our university system” as part of “a balanced budget with structural change.”

But he said a big challenge in the university system is “the overhead, the bureaucracy, the layers of administration, the pensions, the work rules. … the cost structure is not competitive and not attractive.

“And there’s a lot of redundancy,” he said.

“I would like to reform, change our university structure for the state system so there’s not as much overlap,” Rauner said. “The money should be in the classroom with the students and the teachers and not so much in the layers of overhead.”

“Do we need every school in the state to offer a certain thing?” he asked about overlapping programs. “Should some offer some and some others not offer it?”

He did say the “good news” is that heads of universities in the state are “trying to change.”

Some of that overlap may be going away in the case of Governors State University in University Park, south of Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported this week that tuition there is going up 15 percent and 22 degree programs are being eliminated due to the budget stalemate. Affected programs are in areas including math, psychology, art, media studies, early childhood education and special education, though in some cases, other options in those fields exist on campus.

Purvis lamented that the program cuts are budget-related.

“We do not think it is fair or it is best practice that these cuts have to be made because of the budget impasse,” Purvis said in an interview, “which is why we need a balanced budget, and why we need one now. But in the long term, we do think it would be good for the state to have a strategic plan around post-secondary education that takes into account the needs of every region.”

She said one problem with current university funding is that it isn’t always tied to enrollment.

“One of the things the governor would like is a better understanding of what is the adequate cost of supporting each of these colleges and universities, and based on what facts,” she said. “That is something we would love to have a conversation about in much the same way we’ve had … bipartisan … conversations about funding for K-12.”

And in general, Purvis said, Rauner “has been passionate that he really wants a robust cradle-to-career system” of education. She noted the state has a goal of 60 percent of adults having a high-quality degree or credential by 2025. And she thinks presidents of colleges and universities “have done an incredible job of navigating this impasse” while staying “student-focused.”

State Rep. KELLY BURKE, D-Evergreen Park, chairs the House appropriations committee on higher education, and said she views the funding plans Rauner has forwarded for colleges and universities as indicating “a lack of interest in sustaining our higher-education system.” She said quality higher ed is one of the strengths of Illinois, but “the governor’s introduced budgets and the impasse are just decimating it.”

“If we need to have a conversation making sure that we have the right programs in the right places, then let’s have it,” Burke said. “But destroying the system through neglect is not the way to make Illinois a better place.”

JACK THOMAS, president of Western Illinois University, was at the Springfield event where Rauner spoke Wednesday.

“I was very pleased to hear the governor say that higher education was a priority for him,” Thomas said. “I hope that the legislators as well as the governor and everybody can come up with a budget.”

Meanwhile, Rauner has said tenure for college and university faculty is a “flawed concept.”

“Nobody in the real world has a job for life,” he said in the fall of 2013, “and it’s not fair to the students and it’s not fair to the folks who pay for the education system.”

Asked about that at the recent editorial board meeting, Rauner said: “I’m not a big fan of tenure, but I’m also not pushing that issue. We’ve got a lot of other things I’m working on. That’s not something I’m trying to change.”

— Contact Bernard Schoenburg: bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com, 788-1540, http://twitter.com/bschoenburg.

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March 8, 2017 at 12:25PM

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Bernard Schoenburg: Rauner talks up higher ed, but has cut funding

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