Eye On Illinois: In public education debate, don’t overlook community colleges

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There are almost 50 community colleges in Illinois, and some days it feels like not a single one gets the deserved respect.

The ongoing gubernatorial campaign got a mild injection of interest earlier this month when one candidate said it might be time to reduce state spending on K-12 public education. The other countered by pledging further investment and making sure private schools aren’t enriched at taxpayer expense.

You know which is which, but the point here isn’t settling the debate between two candidates, but discussing the larger issue of postsecondary education and workforce development.

Unfortunately, that topic always falls under the umbrella of the federal government because of the outsized importance federal loans and grants play in determining who can afford to go where after high school. A college classroom is like an airplane: the seats are all pointed the same direction and there’s one person in charge at the front, but all the customers paid different amounts to get in the door.

Scott T. Holland

Scott T. Holland

But consider this quote from state Sen. Darren Bailey R-Xenia, from a Crain’s Chicago Business interview: “What is good for New Trier is not good for Clay County, Illinois. Most, many of our children are, some of our children are going to go to the military. They’re going to go right into the workforce. There’s welders, pipe fitters, linemen. So that’s what public education needs to be.”

Given a favorable reading, this statement tracks: one kid doesn’t need to read “Crime and Punishment” in an AP Lit class, while another doesn’t need to learn how to repair high-voltage transmission lines. Fair enough. But “high school diploma or equivalent” is a common baseline requirement in any job that could be considered a career.

Getting into the Army requires at least a GED, plus the matter of passing the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery. The American Line Builders Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee requires a commercial driver’s license or permit and a high school transcript that shows passing algebra and a graduation date.

Community colleges across the state are fantastic resources for job-specific training programs – for high school graduates as well as adults looking for new opportunities – not to mention the myriad technical and vocational centers that operate as consortiums of a dozen or so high school districts offering practical experience, college credit and a foot in the door for all sorts of employers that don’t care if you’ve read a single page of Dostoevsky.

Those institutions always welcome more funding, but more important is just understanding the opportunity and introducing more students to different ways of making life plans. Operating Illinois on a K-14 model might help shift the debate, and state, toward a more productive outcome.

Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at sholland@shawmedia.com.

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October 19, 2022 at 05:06AM

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