Monday, October 26, 2009

Making a Stand for MAP: Triumph & Uncertainty in the Fight for Higher-Ed in Illinois

[A student from Southern Illinois University readies a lapel microphone before being recorded for a newscast. He was joined by nearly 1,000 other students Oct. 15 for a rally to restore financial aid grants in the state.]

It was quickly apparent what they meant. Throngs were crossing the street, chanting, whistling, air-horning, taking long, purposeful strides to the white tent at 100 East Edwards, next to the Capitol, where the others were. People were at the threshold of the sidewalk, some were beyond it, waving at cars and beckoning attention to homemade signs.

The audience under the tent was dense, impenetrable, so the reporters and cameras milled about the perimeter and picked students off where they could. Not all of the picking was spontaneous. As these events go, media are given the names of particular people who are the most affected. My contact at the University of Illinois Springfield, Derek Schnapp, director of public relations, did the same for me, but ultimately I thought it would be a better to poll the audience randomly.

“I don’t know… if there’s any way to know, to estimate the number of students who will be coming state-wide,” Schnapp phoned in the day before the rally. “I’ve heard rumblings of a thousand or more.”

I’m not a bean counter, but the turnout seemed close. I was suspicious of his assessment at first, having made a wrong turn that took me on a journey to the wrong side of the capitol building, where there was only the empty chartered busses, clinging to the side of the road like abandoned cocoons. I wrapped my coat tighter and sped up my pace. It was a couple more blocks before my climate-bred surliness morphed into a blushing contrition that perhaps I didn’t adequately know the geography of my hometown.

Outside the tent, a young man with a square jaw and short, styled hair clipped a lapel microphone to his black peacoat, while a camera man issued directions. The name tag announced the subject was from Southern Illinois University, and he squinted into the camera and announced his name, its proper spelling, and his student government position at the university. His brow lightened and shoulders eased as he explained how, due to a series of medical circumstances and other financial obligations, his pursuit of higher education wouldn’t be possible without financial aid.

“I don’t know if I could get student loans. My credit isn’t so good,” he said. The camera caught a wisp of his nervous laughter as he ended his sentence.

His education, along with the education of many students at the rally, hinged on something called the Monetary Award Program, or MAP grant. It’s a need-based program that aids nearly 137,000 college students, including those who enroll directly from high school and independent adults continuing their education in order to sustain some kind of a middle-class lifestyle.

The maximum each student can obtain from the program is $2,500 per semester. That covers a quarter of the tuition and fees at a public university, or 35 percent of the education at a community college. Due to a combination of forces, both economic and societal, demand for the program ballooned 25 percent this year, according to (established by the Illinois Student Assistant Commission).

At the July armistice that ended 2009 state budget crisis (or merely postponed it, depending on your politics), Governor Patrick Quinn signed a budget that gave the MAP program $220 million, about half of the money it needed to meet its demand for the 2009-2010 school year. He didn’t tap into the $1.6 billion in discretionary funds the budget set aside - opting instead to maintain social services. Something else Quinn didn’t do was spread that money over both college semesters, thus sparing the fall 2009 semester and leaving the spring 2010 semester twisting in the wind.

In late September, just ahead of the veto sessions that could provide a correction of the budget snafu, Quinn launched a campaign to reinstate MAP funding, speaking to students at the University of Illinois Chicago, where 6,000 receive a total of $20,000 in assistance. His tour would roll through the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Bradley University, Black Hawk College, John Wood Community College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville before it was over, all the while proposing to tax cigarettes more heavily and raising the income tax. “When it comes to this important education funding issue, we will not accept a grade of incomplete from the Legislature,” an AP reporter quoted Quinn as saying.

Skeptical minds never let rest the fact that Quinn was the executive whose signature made the state’s inadequate budget a law, a budget which he reportedly had “no reservation” in signing off. “To me, at least, it’s beyond obvious what the governor is doing here,” concluded Rich Miller, blogger for The Capital Fax Blog, in his Illinois Times column. “Quinn got himself in big trouble and now he’s lashing out at somebody else to draw attention away from him.”

Those weren’t the concerns of the college students at the Oct. 15 rally. From inside the rally’s tent came a voice that, although encumbered by the lack of a public address system, resonated with the listeners who could barely hear it. “People united cannot be defeated!” the man said. Shouting and applause answered the proclamation.

Without amplification, it was difficult to identify the speaker, but the deliberate cadence that marched like an army of words in some victory parade, the rising grumble that coalesced into a brusque dénouement, gave the voice away as that of Governor Quinn. His phrase, which he often wielded as a battle cry in similar populist demonstrations, also identified him. From behind, two people mused how it could have been Southern Illinois University President Glenn Poshard talking (a former democratic gubernatorial candidate), but I knew this couldn’t be. The speaker’s forceful turn-of-phrase didn’t fit Poshard’s mellifluous M.O.

“I can’t hear anything. Can you hear anything?” a woman said.
“No, I can’t hear anything,” a man answered. “It’s for the press, anyway. These things are always for the press.”

[People at the rally jammed a tent across the street from the Capitol, listening to speeches by students, college officials and the Governor before taking the protest to the rotunda.]

The easiest way to get through a mass of tightly-packed followers of a political rally, besides plowing your way through with a liberal application of impolite force, is to follow closely behind someone else who is already weaving through the crowd. I stopped at a point that was closer to the tent, but even raising my cell phone above the crowd to snap a picture didn’t result in a better understanding of the of the rally’s locus. Instead, I asked a Blackburn coed to show off her sign for a quick snap. A mother of three began to speak from the tent’s podium, but I ducked out early, overhearing the fact that this was the last speaker, and the rally would be marching to the rotunda of the Capitol.

Shuffling up the Capitol steps and finding the end of the entrance line, five people from Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights quickly followed and arranged themselves in the queue. I spoke with Ryan Zantingh, a tall, slender man with a slightly dimpled chin and short, scruffy hair. His business card told me he was a financial aid coordinator, so I asked him what the cut to student funding would be, and what that might do to the population at TCC.

“We would lose about $1.5 million in funding,” he said. “There are a lot of students who would have to withdraw.”

One of the TCC contingency gripped a rolled-up poster, and I asked him to unfurl it for my camera phone. Zantingh and the other students helped unroll the poster, nearly ten feet long, revealing dozens of signatures recorded in black Sharpie. “FROM THE STUDENTS AT TRINITY CHRISTIAN COLLEGE / WITHOUT A MAP STUDENTS STRUGGLE TO FIND A WAY.” The poster caught the attention of others waiting in line, inspiring them to shout “Save Map Now, Save Map Now” and hold up signs of their own.

I took the shot as the line began carrying me off to the doors. “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now” was played on repeat, at volume which no other conversation could be deciphered, to which air horns trumpeted in compliment, successfully blocking out any immediate thought save “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now.” The assembly, despite not having entered the rotunda yet, had all the sincerity and fervor of a homecoming pep rally, although it was for a game where the consequences were much direr.

[A contingency from Trinity Christian College show a poster which students signed in support of the effort to restore MAP grants.]

When the uproar subsided and conversation again was possible, I was next to Dr. Malinda Carlson, the dean of students for Illinois College in Jacksonville.

“Where is it that you are from?” she asked
“I’m from Springfield, but I’m not a student here.” I said, picking out a crisp business card to hand her. “I’m a writer, you see. I thought I’d come to blog about all this.”
“I see.”
“So, how many students use the MAP grant at Illinois College?” I asked.
“About one-third.”
“And how much funding does that equate to?”
“About one million,” she said above the din of students joining in the latest round of chanting.
“And if MAP funding isn’t restored for the next semester, what do you think will happen to the student population?”
“Many of them would have to drop out. We’re really concerned about that.”

I could hear the conversation between two college students in the background. “How would they feel if we took $40,000 from their budget?” one said. Another said, “They look kind of angry.” Carlson turned to an IC student behind her.

“Is there a story you might be able to tell?” She asked the student.
“I don’t know if I’d be able to come back next semester without the MAP grant,” the student answered. “My grandmother has lung cancer, and I have to spend a lot of time with her. The treatment is really expensive, I don’t know if I could afford college if I didn’t have the grant.”
“And what are you now? Sophomore, junior, senior?” I asked.
“I’m a senior,” she said. “I have one semester to go.”
“You’re so close.”
“Yes, very close.”

Carlson turned again to the student. “I’m really sorry to hear that.”

“What is your name?” I asked.
“Andrea.” She said.
“Andrea, I’m sorry to hear about that.”

[A view of the line to the metal detectors inside the Illinois Capitol building. Air horns and other noisemakers were confiscated here.]

Nearing the metal detectors, another burst of chanting and air horns sounded. Knowing the system, I worked on unbuckling my belt and coiling it into a tight package. Two guards were shuttling trays of belongings through the X-ray’s conveyor. Another man was waving a wand over someone who caused the metal detector to burp a noise. A young man produced a silver multi-function pocketknife with a pronounced corkscrew. The device, which the tending guard indicated was not too big a size to allow, was about the width of a good-sized adult palm. I worked on putting my belongings into a basket and moved forward, crossed the threshold of the detector, and was relieved to find the alarm had not sounded.

There was a podium inside the rotunda that the young protesters used to re-launch the chant, “Save MAP Now, Save MAP Now.” The Trinity Christian College contingency stepped on the podium and stretched out their signature-adorned sign. Beside the podium was a guest book, where students lined up to record their name, address and purpose. A Capitol guide tried to politely make her way through the pack, repeating “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,” clutching to her breast what appeared to be a bundle of maps. Eyes, pairs belonging young students and weathered lawmakers alike, watched from the railings on the second and third stories. The protesters below silenced their chants and coagulated on the rotunda floor around a single figure.

Centered in the orbit of multicolored neon placards doused in black Sharpie ink, young black and white and male and female and blue jeans and thick eyeliner and puffy coats and sweaters with college names in block font, and earpiece-wearing sentinels draped in weighty trench coats and fat neckties, was Governor Quinn, each arm corralling a student, his face locked in a grinning pose reserved for the fleeting, exceptional occasions that cameras were made for, but due to his avocation seemed to be perpetual and immutable, leaving one to ponder if it were actually ingenuous and not a pose at all. The students he was being captured with were from Bradley in Peoria.

[Light from a news camera washed out the face of Illinois Governor Patrick Quinn as he meets with students and answered questions from the press.]

What ensued was loosely-choreographed waltz. The students would approach, deliver a compliment, a response was given, they would shake, assume the stance for the camera, strain their eyes at the flash, and Quinn would pivot 90 or 180 degrees to address the next person. I watched this with a student reporter from a small, private college.

“Do you know if anyone is going to give a speech here?” he asked.

“Uh, no, probably not. I don’t think so,” I said. “You see, during the summer when there was all the budget turmoil, they actually had a rally here in the rotunda, and Quinn spoke at that podium over there. But it had microphones, and there was a speaker system and everything. They don’t have it set up like that, so I don’t think that’s going to happen today. Were you planning on asking Quinn a question?”

The reporter, who wore a black pea coat like mine and squared glasses like mine, shuffled a camera phone, a black voice recorder and several reporter’s notebooks in his hands.

“I was just going to ask him if he had any words for the students back at the college,” he said.

I kept silent my thoughts that it were a bit of a softball question, perhaps thinking that I didn’t have so many hardball questions myself, and said only “Sometimes, you just have to strong-arm your way in there.”

After observing Quinn’s waltz for nearly ten minutes, scouting for an opening, I found a route to the sanctum of the Governor/Student waltz and readied my silver Olympus WS-311M Digital Voice Recorder.

“How are you going to do it, Quinn? How are you going to pull it off?”

His brown eyes registered a response, but his face was locked for the camera, and he waited until the photo was taken. When that was accomplished, he gave an answer.

“Interfund borrowing is going to be one of our strategies,” Governor Quinn said, before pivoting to address the next person.

But nothing about cigarette or income tax. The last time interfund borrowing was practiced in Illinois was when the state transferred half a billion dollars from the retirement system into the hospital provider fund (Medicaid). Quinn signed that bill, The Interfund Borrowing Act of 2009 (which began life as HB1027), into law February 27. A week earlier, The Illinois AFL-CIO flagged it as a “shell bill,” or something that has no real legal content until it is replaced by a later version, sometimes just before committee. It’s a tactic used to shuttle legislation under the radar, or pulled as a trump card when things go badly late in session.

[Quinn poses for a photo with a troupe of Bradley students.]

Unbeknownst to the students chanting in the rotunda, senators boosted MAP funding to $425 million while the rally was going on. Nobody in the House said “nay,” and the only senator to vote against the bill was Mike Jacobs, a Democrat from Moline.

Beneath the widespread consent about the need for the funding boost, a bitter divide amongst lawmakers remained. A Murphysboro Republican told the State Journal-Register “Is this like writing a check when there is no money in the account? This doesn’t put any more money into our budget, and we are broke. It does give the governor cover to say ‘I have done something.’”

Democracy happened. Citizens were heard, and the lawmakers were pressured. Quinn’s signature would complete the legislative circle of life three days later. site changed to encourage thank-you notes to legislators, notifying visitors that “even with the passage of Senate Bill 1180 and subsequent signing into law, approximately 130,000 eligible applicants were still denied aid, as the state’s means was far less than the demand for the program.”

“Additionally, a funding source for the appropriation has yet to be identified.”

[Eyes closely watched the rally from the second and third stories.]

Before he left the rally, Quinn joined the TCC contingency on the podium for a last few frames of public interaction. Zantingh and his cadre beamed for the camera. Those associated with the rally began to make way for the exits, a process preempted by news crews who had deadlines to meet. I followed, but became transfixed by an enigmatic young man who began to chant “No MAP?” To that, the sign-wielding students around him answered “No Future.”

“No MAP?”
“No Future!”
“No MAP?”
“No Future!”

Time seemed to melt around this happening, at least until interest waned and the young man, for all his energy and character, struggled to keep the chant going. In a matter of hours on that brisk October day, the sanguine chant of “Save MAP Now” changed into a diffident mumbling of “Now What?”

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