- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Chicago Tribune. March 4, 2021.

Editorial: Get. Kids. Back. In. School.

Across the country, parents are demanding more aggressively that schools reopen, including high schools. They’re frustrated with slow bureaucracy on school reopening plans, obstinate teachers unions and pick-and-choose “science” to justify closed buildings. They’re worried about their kids’ mental health.

The Jan. 7 death by suicide of Glenbrook North High School student Dylan Buckner is just one example of why parents are concerned. Buckner’s father in a Tribune interview said his son’s isolation and lack of school activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to his struggles.

“I would argue, and I believe strongly, that Dylan’s death is not going to show up in COVID statistics, and yet absolutely it’s a COVID death,” Chris Buckner said.

Las Vegas-area school officials moved quickly late last year to get schools reopened after noticing a spike in suicides and an uptick in a student mental health monitoring system. Eighteen students had died by suicide as of December. The superintendent of schools, Jesus Jara, wanted to move quickly to get kids back into their school routines.

“Every day, it feels like we have run out time,” he told the New York Times.

Where’s the sense of urgency for high schoolers in Chicago, still at home after almost a full year?

Also from the New York Times: “The parents of a 14-year-old boy in Maryland who killed himself in October described how their son ‘gave up’ after his district decided not to return in the fall. In December, an 11-year-old boy in Sacramento shot himself during his Zoom class. Weeks later, the father of a teenager in Maine attributed his son’s suicide to the isolation of the pandemic.”

And yet, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union still don’t have a plan to get high school kids back in school, even part time. They began negotiating this week, far too late.

Many private schools, meanwhile, throughout Chicago and the suburbs have been operating on at least a hybrid basis all year. And no, those schools aren’t limited to areas of Chicago protected from high numbers of COVID cases. Almost every ZIP code in Chicago since last May where public and private schools coexist has experienced high positivity rates at one point or another.

So there is no excuse as to why Chicago high schools have been closed for in-person learning for so long.

Same for suburban high schools, including in Evanston where parents formed a coalition to pressure school administrators to reopen for in-person learning. The high school recently began allowing some activities on campus for athletics, art workshops and student exercise including “mindfulness practice experiences in a meditation studio or other spaces.” So yoga in school, yes. Algebra, no.

“Our kids are hurting. The failure to resume in-person learning at Evanston Township High School or even to provide credible, consistent metrics for its resumption is simply not acceptable,” parent Valerie Kimball, an Evanston pediatrician and part of the coalition to reopen schools, said in a statement. “A crisis is brewing, not just an educational crisis but one that threatens the physical and mental health of Evanston Township students.”

School administrators say they are working to bring students back after spring break. But by then, the year will be almost over. The teachers union president in the district, GionMatthias Schelbert, said the decision to send students back to school is “not putting students first, and not putting education first, but is putting white privilege first.”

The school’s minority enrollment is around 55%, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The teachers are around 68% white.

The pandemic has further illustrated the struggle: In too many public school districts with bloated bureaucracies and heavy-handed teachers unions, the adults come first. The kids come last.


Chicago Sun-Times. March 7, 2021.

Editorial: Hang tough, Illinois, and cap interest rates on payday loans at 36%

Payday loan borrowers, burdened by triple-figure interest rates, frequently fall behind in paying other bills, put off spending for medical care and go bankrupt. They are also very often people of color.

Six years ago, a woman in Downstate Springfield, Billie Aschmeller, took out a $596 short-term loan that carried a crazy high 304% annual interest rate. Even if she paid back the loan in the two years required by her lender, her total bill would exceed $3,000.

Before long, though, Aschmeller fell behind on other basic expenses, desperately trying to keep up with the loan so as not to lose the title to her car. Eventually, she ended up living in that car.

Aschmeller regrets she ever went the payday and car title loan route, with its usury-high levels of interest, though her intentions - to buy a winter coat, crib and car seat for her pregnant daughter - were understandable. She is now an outspoken advocate in Illinois for cracking down on a short-term small loan industry that, by any measure, has left millions of Americans like her only poorer and more desperate.

For years, as she has told the Legislature, she felt “like a hamster on one of those wheels.”

A bill awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature, the Illinois Predatory Loan Prevention Act, would go a long way toward ending this sort of exploitation by the financial services industry, and there’s little doubt the governor will, in fact, sign it. The bill, which would cap interest rates at 36%, has strong bipartisan support. It was approved unanimously in the House and 35 to 9 in the Senate.

But two hostile trailer bills - HB 3192 and SB 2306 - have been introduced in the Legislature that would greatly water down the Predatory Loan Prevention Act, defeating much of its purpose. Our hope is that those two bills go nowhere. They would create a loophole in how the annual percentage rate is calculated, allowing lenders to charge hidden add-on fees.

Between 2012 and 2019, as reported recently by the Chicago Reader, more than 1.3 million consumers took out more than 8.6 million payday, car title and installment loans, for an average of more than six loans per consumer. Those loans typically ranged from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand, and they carried average annual interest rates - or APRs - of 179% for car title loans and 297% for payday loans.

Some 40% of borrowers in Illinois - a disturbingly high percentage that underlines the unreasonableness of the burden - ultimately default on repaying such loans. More often than not, they find themselves caught in a cycle of debt, with old loans rolling over into new ones. Nationally, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has found, nearly 1 in 4 payday loans are reborrowed nine times or more.

Studies have shown that payday loan borrowers frequently fall behind in paying other bills, delay spending for medical care and prescription drugs and go bankrupt. They also very often are people of color. Seventy-two percent of Chicago’s payday loans originate in Black and Brown neighborhoods.

The Predatory Loan Prevention Act, an initiative of the increasingly assertive Legislative Black Caucus, would cap interest rates for consumer loans under $40,000 - such as payday loans, installment loans and auto title loans - at 36%. It is the same interest rate cap imposed by the U.S. Department of Defense for loans to active members of the military and their families.

Critics of the bill, which is to say lenders and their associations, insist they are only providing a reasonable service for people who find themselves in the toughest straits, desperate for cash and having nowhere else to turn. No bank or credit union, the lenders point out, would extend loans to such high-risk customers.

But in states where triple-digit interest rates on payday and auto title loans have been outlawed, studies have shown that people do turn to other - and better - alternatives. They use their credit cards, which have lower interest rates. They seek help from family and friends. They build up more savings. And apparently most of all, they cut back on expenses.

There are also institutional nonprofit lenders in Illinois, such as Capital Good Fund and Self-Help Federal Credit Union, willing to make small loans at rates below 36%.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia already have capped interest rates at 36% or lower on payday and auto title loans. In the service of greater racial equity - and to strike a blow against structural racism, which is really what this is all about - Illinois should do the same.


Champaign News-Gazette. March 7, 2021.

Editorial: Pension numbers just keep getting worse

The Gloomy Guses of the world, much to their glee, found plenty to be down about in a recent analysis of Illinois’ public pensions.

Last week’s news that Illinois’ public-pension woes continue should not have come as a surprise.

Still, the report from Moody’s Investors Service that the collective underfunding of the state’s five public-pension programs (state employees, university employees, teachers, judges and legislators) jumped to an estimated $317 billion in 2020 is a stunner. That is, after all, real money.

The new number represents a $56 billion jump over the 2019 figure of $269 billion.

What does that number mean? Just that current assets are $317 billion shy of what’s needed to meet current liabilities.

Broken down even further, it means that the pensions have sufficient assets to meet monthly obligations for an average of seven years. That’s not just not good, it’s very bad.

Analysts at Wirepoints, a website whose interests include state finances, write that “healthy funds have ratios that ranged from 25 to 40 years worth of assets.”

If there’s any good news here - there’s really not - it’s that the state’s official underfunding estimate is a mere $144 billion, a number that’s certain to increase.

The difference between Moody’s numbers and the state’s is the result of different return estimates on pension-fund investments.

The state predicts the pensions’ annual investment gains will be roughly 7 percent, while Moody’s figure for 2020 was just 2.7 percent.

Investment-market conditions determine rates of return - some years are off the charts in terms of gains, while others are marginal or worse.

For example, the Moody’s report noted that the teachers’ fund’s investment return in 2020 was substantially less than both what it and the state predicted - just 0.52 percent.

Shortfalls like that are not only the result of turbulent market conditions caused by the coronavirus pandemic economic lockdowns, but severe declines in interest rates.

Rates are expected to remain low in the coming months, bad news for bond investors like pension funds. At the same time, higher rates that are good for bond investors will simultaneously drive up borrowing costs for both private and public entities, including state and local governments.

While the underfunding increase is shocking in terms of size, it’s no surprise that it’s higher. That’s because state policy calls for continued underfunding of the state’s pension system.

Holding the underfunding to no increase would require the state to make “actuarially required” contributions. Instead, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and legislators make lesser “statutorily required” contributions.

But even the lesser annual state-pension appropriations are breaking the budget, consuming roughly a quarter of the operating fund and making it difficult to provide enough support for core state programs like education and public safety.

Illinois’ pension systems have been on a steady downward trajectory since 2000, the result of the state’s underfunding on one end and excessive benefits on the other.

In terms of state ranking, Illinois can go no lower. Moody’s reports that Illinois has the highest pension liabilities among the 50 states.

Unfortunately, the investment firm reports that being the worst doesn’t preclude Illinois’ pension woes from getting worse, as they continue to do.


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