Are Illinois politicians student friendly?

By Darryl Holliday

With the state’s political landscape settled for the next four years the direction of higher education moves to the front.

Around half of Illinois’ registered voters turned out for the Nov. 2 elections, giving Republicans the Senate seat previously held by President Barack Obama.

The win by Senator-elect Mark Kirk (R) brings an end to a mudslinging political battle between Kirk and State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D). In the end, Kirk won with 48 percent of the vote to Giannoulias’s 46 percent.

The governor’s race was a closer call and only after several days of delay did state Sen. Bill Brady (R) concede to Gov. Pat Quinn (D) on Nov. 5.

Quinn has now won his first full term by a narrow one percent over his opponent.

THE ISSUE

Though a wide variety of topics were discussed throughout the duration of both races, few relate to the student body more than the state of

higher education funding.

Budgetary shortfalls in higher education have largely resulted in pressure on tuition and fees to compensate for the lack of funding.

“I think what’s happened is we’ve done a lot of cost shifting away from the state and toward students and parents,” said Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois in Springfield. “Students should be very interested in electing people [who] are going to fix the public education budget and have an interest in restoring funding for higher education.”

Past voting records can be indicative of the future of Illinois education.

THE GOVERNOR

This past July, Quinn slashed $96 million from public higher education as part of a $1.4 billion budget cut that reduced funding of the Illinois education system by more than $300 million.

According to Quinn, Brady’s plan would have cut even more from higher education, causing tuition to rise more than 10 percent.

“In terms of orientation toward the budget, Quinn is more likely to pursue a budget solution that includes more revenue whereas Brady was

strongly committed to trying to deal with this by reducing funding,” Redfield said.

He said it’s likely the state will continue to experience movement toward increasing revenue and continuing budget cuts.

“There’s pressure on everybody,” Redfield said. “Pressure on higher education and pressure on elementary and secondary education. We’ve got a serious budget problem, and there’s huge pressure on education that results in either cutting services or raising property taxes in the public schools.”

According to Redfield, the parity between funding for higher education and secondary schools has all but disappeared in the last decade resulting in inadequate funding for the Monetary Award Program, which provides grants to residents who attend Illinois colleges and demonstrates financial need.

THE SENATE

The situation at the federal level is much like the state—pressures from budget cuts will affect higher education funding.

Kirk voted in support of the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 and the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2008. Both pieces of legislation would work to reduce or limit tuition costs, simplify the federal aid process for students and expand support for low-income and minority students.

Despite these votes in favor of students,

Redfield said it will take time to get out of the financial morass that has made the proper funding of education difficult around the country.

“Kirk is going to be in the minority in the Senate with a divided government,” Redfield said. “It’s likely we’re not going to see any major initiatives [throughout] the next few years that involve spending money.”

Kirk, who claims on his website he was a former teacher—though he was never an accredited teacher—voted “yes” on an additional $10.2 billion for federal education in 2007 and $40 billion for “green” public schools in 2009.

Unlike Giannoulias, Kirk does not support the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act, a proposal that could ease the path to education for undocumented immigrant students in the U.S.

THE OUTLOOK

During the post-election “Beer Summit” on Nov. 3, Kirk and Giannoulias met in a sign of goodwill. The former opponents both had a beer at the famous Billy Goat Tavern, 430 N. Michigan Ave., bringing an amiable end to the fierce debate during the Senate race.

“I’m really scared and concerned about what’s going to happen to the next generation,” Giannoulias said before he left the tavern. “We’re trying to make college more affordable, trying to create jobs…. It’s tough out there.”

According to Redfield, people need to remember colleges are a vital part of creating jobs when they think of how to keep the country competitive.

“Higher education is of value in and of itself, there’s no question about that,” Redfield said. “But when everyone is concerned about jobs and growing the economy, then

you’ve got to make sure everyone remembers how important higher education is and how important universities are in terms of accomplishing those goals.”

According to Redfield, an organized student body is one of the first steps toward ensuring politians take notice.

“It’s about being organized and participating in elections and participating in the process,” he said. “You have to make the case, but you also have to get their attention.”

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.