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Why I Left Illinois… and Higher Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
July 18, 2017

After almost three years without a budget, Illinois state legislators passed a state budget. It was overwritten by Governor Bruce Rauner (R) but the bills were overridden by the state legislature. Public schools will open on time and remain open throughout the academic year. Colleges and universities are fully funded for the first time in three years. State agencies and nonprofit contractors can provide services. The momentary sigh of relief was followed by a collective gasp which forced us to leave.

money_measureWall Street may issue Illinois’ bonds at junk status. Property tax increases will be used to pay its over $110 billion pension debt and $15 billion in back payments. According to the Chicago Tribune, an estimated 89,000 people moved out of Chicago and Illinois each year for the past three years. Those exiting the state are primarily middle-class citizens who are essential to the state’s future economic growth. Private sector organizations continue to leave Illinois. An estimated 16,000 Illinois college students transferred to out-of-state institutions, while 50,000 high school students left the state to attend college. Almost 50 percent of all nonprofit organizations are closed. We joined those public sector employees who were laid off, forced into early retirement or subject to administrative moves which allowed public institutions to declare financial exigency.

My family moved to Illinois from “a red state” who declared legislative and financial war on public education. My wife and I are teachers. K-12 budgets were slashed and funding was linked to performance. I taught at a regional university where faculty lines were terminated just as the tenure-track professor was eligible for tenure. But tenure was not what it once was. Tenured faculty were unprotected from teaching additional classes, increased research requirements and faced the possibility of tenure being eliminated after its being awarded. Illinois is a “blue state” with a strong union presence, a salve to heal our wounds.

No sooner than we arrived, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed 52 Chicago Public schools (CPS) laying off thousands of workers. Student test scores determined these closures. Yet, these closed schools were reopened as charter schools, almost all entirely in Latino or African-American communities. Open-enrollment schools were scattered further south and west. This forced many parents to drive their children to school or force them to take multiple public transportation modes to get to a school that would enroll them. It forced many of the 1000 teachers to retire or drive or move to live near one of these schools that would employ them. Luckily my wife is a K-3 teacher but hired as an elementary teacher in a Southside, inner-city school.

Our “blue state dream” left us yearning for our “red state nightmare.” In my wife’s school, special education and speech classes were taught in open hallways and under stairwells. Students traveled to school across gang lines. Every Thursday became “shooting day” because of gang warfare forcing the school into lockdown. Coupled with the seven CPS layoff notices she received in one year, seeing and hearing the children’s plight took away my wife’s spirit. Things were not much better for me.

I decided in graduate school to work in teaching institutions. I could teach where my academic career began and give back what these professors gave me by becoming a mentor to students through teaching, writing and service. In time, the leaders of these institutions began to demand more research and service without relinquishing teaching demands due to the growing American war on public education. This forced these institutions to compete for students to remain open, many of them academically and psychologically unprepared students.

At times, wherever I taught, I found myself having to teach elementary grammar along with Lipsky. Meanwhile, tenured faculty members enacted increasing tenure-and-retention requirements whihch made it almost impossible for a tenure-track faculty member to remain. Many of these standards were not in place at the time these now-tenured professors “went up.” Published standards became inconsequential to “who you know on the committee” rather than the what you know. Higher education has always had it struggles, but this was schizophrenic surrealism, where I witnessed faculty members attacked because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or a rebellious child was used against them during tenure review. I witnessed one administrator say one faculty member’s only publication, a coffee table book, had greater value than a scholarly text. Another faculty member was denied tenure because s/he was not listed high enough on a multi-national collaborative paper published in an internationally-renown journal to be considered as a scholarly publication.

One Thursday, my wife faced another shooting outside her school and another lay off. I had received my layoff notice. We decided to leave Illinois. It was just too much. We joined the mass migration south, to a red state. My teaching, research and community service experiences easily transitioned into a nonprofit executive position. My wife was hired as a supervising elementary teacher.

Our voices joined the sighs of the Illinois departed along with every street-level bureaucrat and middle-class American who moved.

Author: Dwight Vick is a long-term ASPA member. His email address is [email protected].

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