Tom Bennett column sig

Absenteeism was up, proficiency in key subject areas was down and the number of students on track to graduate fell to disturbing levels during the pandemic: those are the results made public in Illinois’ 2020-2021 school report card from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Less than 10 percent of Illinois students started the 2020-2021 school year in-person, a number which gradually improved as the year went on.

About 20% of students were considered “chronically absent,” meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year without a valid excuse. Overall enrollment was down by almost 70,000.

The results of elementary students taking the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) test and high schoolers taking the SAT this spring found that the number of students meeting grade-level expectations in math and English sharply declined from the pre-pandemic school year.

In English, the number of students meeting their grade-level standard fell by 16.6% from 2019, and in math the decline was 17.8%. The decline was sharper among younger students than older kids, which some are attributing to the greater difficulty they had with remote learning.

The number of ninth graders on track to graduate fell by 5% from 2019. This figure is determined by looking at the number of ninth graders who are receiving failing grades. Schools counter these worrisome indicators in 9th graders by providing additional services like tutoring or supplemental instruction, but those were much harder to deliver remotely during the pandemic.

There were some good indicators, however. More students enrolled in advanced placement (AP) classes, dual credit courses and career and technical education. The graduation rate remained similar to pre-pandemic norms. The state added close to 2000 teachers, somewhat easing our chronic teacher shortage.

Our teachers and principals were handed enormous challenges with shutdowns and remote learning, and they moved mountains to meet those challenges. But as this report shows: there is no substitute for being in class in person. It is a great relief to have our students back in school this year so that we can reverse the trends of the last school year.

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Shortly after midnight last Thursday night the House passed another gerrymandered redistricting map, this one for our Congressional districts. Illinois lost a Congressional seat this year because our state did not grow in population as fast as many other states. For the next decade we will have 17 seats in the U.S. House.

Unfortunately, the same flawed process was used to draw this map as was used for the state legislative maps. It was put together in a back room with little public input in order to give Democrats an advantage in future elections. The bill passed both houses by a mostly party line vote.

As I have been saying all summer: this process is badly broken. We need redistricting reform to ensure fair, nonpartisan maps.

Unemployment report continues to show progress in Illinois

In September the Illinois unemployment rate continued its slow decline, falling to 6.8% from the previous month’s figure of 7.0%. The state added 14,000 jobs in September with the additions coming in leisure and hospitality, transportation and utilities, and in construction. Illinois’ unemployment rate remains two full percentage points above the national average of 4.8%, which fell by a slightly faster 0.4% in September. One year ago Illinois unemployment stood at 10.4% with most of the economy still reeling from the pandemic and the shutdowns.

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In the past I have promised to donate a part of my salary to a local nonprofit agency serving the residents of the 106th District. This month I was proud to meet with Deb Howard, the executive director of the United Way of Livingston County to make my donation. Thank you Deb for all that you and the United Way do to help the people of Livingston County!

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On Tuesday Nov. 16, I am partnering with the Pontiac Area Chamber of Commerce to host their monthly Business After Hours event at my new district office located at 305 W. Madison Street. Stop by between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to say hello and check out our new office space. The Chamber is also participating in a “Give Thanks…Give Food” drive for our local food pantries, so please consider bringing non-perishable food items, toys or other items that will help those in need to have a wonderful holiday season.

To RSVP, please contact the Chamber at admin@pontiacchamber.org. I hope to see you there!

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As of the time of this writing, the State of Illinois owes $4,498,437,878 in unpaid bills to state vendors. One year ago, the backlog stood at $8.3 billion. This figure represents the amount of bills submitted to the office of the Comptroller and still awaiting payment. It does not include debts that can only be estimated, such as our unfunded pension liability which is subject to a wide range of factors and has been estimated to be more than $141 billion.

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