- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

September 15, 2019

The (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan

As jobs evolve, so should education for our children

There was a time when young people, particularly young men, in Southern Illinois could envision their future at an early age.

After finishing high school, many children knew there would be work for them on the family farm. Still others knew they could find good paying jobs at one of the many coal mines scattered throughout the region.

The education offered by local school districts - reading, writing and arithmetic - taught young men and women the basic skills they needed to survive. And, any additional training that could be gleaned from industrial arts or automotive classes was a bonus.

By the time the 1970s and 1980s rolled around, a college degree was considered a necessity for most, even in rural areas, even in coal country.

However, the world doesn’t stand still. The job market is forever shifting.

Small family farms disappeared. Coal seams were exhausted, forcing mines to close. Technology whittled away at the number of jobs at the remaining mines. Students emerged from college with mountains of debt and degrees that no longer guaranteed a job.

The disappearance of manufacturing and retail jobs further threw additional shadows over the job market. The real world changed so rapidly that education couldn’t keep up with students’ changing needs.

The days are long gone when basic math and reading skills taught at the high school level are sufficient to navigate today’s job market.

That’s what makes the new robotics program offered at Elverado Community Unit District so exciting. The new program can lay a foundation for careers in coding or robotics, or at least provide realistic pathways into related fields that students might never have considered.

That may seem presumptuous considering that many students enroll in college without a clear plan for the future. Yet, all of us know, or perhaps were even that person, that had their eyes opened in high school to a career path that hadn’t previously been considered.

“We have lots of gamers and we wanted to show them that there are other ways to use those skills other than playing video games,” said Belinda Conner, Elverado’s instructional services director. “We want them to learn the processes behind the technology.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The job market in Southern Illinois will continue to evolve in the next generation. There are few manufacturing jobs, and barring unforeseen circumstances, mining and agricultural jobs will continue to decline.

Technology, whether it relates to renewable energy, automation or communications, is the present, and, presumably, the future.

The robotics classes at Elverado are partially funded through grants obtained from Lego Education and the Bayer Fund’s America’s Farms Grow Rural Education Program. The grant funds are earmarked to help rural schools improve their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

The Bayer Foundation sees the grant program as a win-win - students are gaining access to new technologies and many of these students will gain knowledge that will make them ideal job candidates for jobs Bayer needs to fill.

And, early indications are that students are enjoying the new curriculum.

Steve Bridgman, who teaches art in addition to the robotics class, said students’ faces light up when they solve coding problems and their robots perform as intended.

Finally, the curriculum stresses critical thinking, a skill vital to every profession.

“I try,” Bridgman said, “even in my art class, to let the kids know ‘I’m not going to give you the answer to every problem. I’ll help you with different solutions so that you can find the answer.’”

Therein lies the fundamental definition of success in any endeavor. No one knows what the future holds, but this program is capable of given students a glimpse, not to mention hope for a brighter future. No school can provide a better service than that.


September 13, 2019

The (Champaign) News-Gazette

Just Illinois being Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court has a new chief justice, an appointment that under ordinary circumstances wouldn’t mean a whole lot.

That’s because the high court’s seven justices take turns handling the chief’s administrative duties. Every three years, a new chief replaces the old chief.

The outgoing chief is Lloyd Karmeier, a downstate Republican. The new one is Anne Burke, a Chicago Democrat.

If that name sounds familiar, perhaps linked to familial power politics, it’s because it should.

Anne Burke is married to indicted Chicago Alderman Ed Burke, one of that corrupt city’s leading politicos and the shady character at the center of a broad and ongoing federal corruption investigation.

Ed Burke faces charges of using his powerful office as a means of extorting legal business from a company seeking a city permit to renovate a restaurant in his district.

He also was the target of a wiretap that recorded thousands of his phone calls with various associates, some of which appear to be incriminating.

So while Ed Burke awaits his fate in the unfolding drama that court watchers predict will rock the city, Anne Burke will fulfill her role as one of the state’s leading jurists.

In any other state, the irony would be striking. But this is Illinois, a state where corruption and government walk hand in hand, although not always as clearly as the Burkes are demonstrating.


September 11, 2019

The (Bloomington) Pantagraph

Downstate needs to make noise

Usually, what comes out of the mouth of a Chicago mayor has little real effect on the rest of Illinois. We’re part of the same state, but are thousands of miles apart on almost every issue.

Until now.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered her State of the City address and in it addressed problems with contributions to the city’s pension funds. They’re so bad, she said, that state lawmakers need to step in.

Hip hip hooray. Finally, an issue and a megaphone big enough to catch the ears of those in Springfield.

For therein lies the problem and the solution.

A recent Chicago Tribune editorial put the issue in perspective: “Since the May 2015 Illinois Supreme Court ruling striking down pension changes that were projected to save taxpayers $160 billion over 30 years, the legislature has done nothing to meaningfully address alarming unfunded liabilities in the state’s system and in hundreds of local government funds. … (A) recent Wirepoints examination found that 57% of 630 downstate police and fire pension funds showed funding ratios of less than 60%. Many are in far worse shape, even for governments meeting their statutorily required contributions. …”

How to fund pensions, how to catch up with pension payments, and whether pensions should accrue at their current rates are key to fixing the issue. But it’s beyond dicey: raise taxes? No. Raid another fund to make up the difference? No. Give retirees a less stable fund? No. Because the taxpayers, the people served by the other funds, the retirees - they all vote. And lawmakers hear them, loud and clear. So our Springfield friends avoid that third rail like the political death trap it likely is.

But non-action isn’t the right course, either. Legislative posts aren’t lifetime appointments (or shouldn’t be). Sometimes, the hard choices are those that best serve a constituency or the state as a whole. This is one of those times.

Crain’s Chicago Business, weighing in on Lightfoot’s position, said this: “The hard truth is Illinois needs a constitutional amendment to fix the pension clause. The mayor may not be willing to say it in so many words, but this is the relief she needs, and the governor, despite his protestations, needs it, too. He must rethink his previously ironclad opposition to a pension amendment. … (S)hort of the sort of meaningful pension solution that only a constitutional amendment can deliver, it’s fair to wonder whether Pritzker’s job will be worth having come 2022.”

Lawmakers return to Springfield Oct. 28. It’s time for Downstate to make some noise.

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