Illinois Public Media News
The Illinois House wants a full scale review of a prepaid tuition program.
The move Thursday follows revelations of questionable investments detailed in "Crain's Chicago Business."
The 35,000 parents who have money into the "College Illinois!" program expect they're making a sound investment in their child's future education at a state university. The plan is billed as a way to guard against future tuition hikes, but no guarantee exists if the fund runs short of cash.
Crain's reports the program is more than 30% underfunded.
The newspaper also uncovered a recent string of risky moves ... such as money being put into hedge funds ... as administrators try to make up lost ground.
State Representative Chad Hays (R-Catlin) said being too aggressive is a bad strategy.
"This is not a fund, in my opinion, that is a good place for the flavor or the day in terms of the newest investment strategy," Hays said. "This is a fund that really aligns itself with a pretty conservative investment."
Hays said he hopes an audit will give parents renewed confidence in College Illinois. In the meantime, he said he does not encourage College Illinois participants to withdraw their contracts.
The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which manages the portfolio, is on record as welcoming the review. A letter to College Illinois participants says the program continues to be a "great choice."
In a separate action, the Illinois House separately approved a measure on Thursday barring members of the legislature from awarding scholarships to state universities to their family members. The so-called "General Assembly" scholarships are controversial, as some legislators gave the tuition waivers to children of campaign donors.
Legislation being lauded for making historic improvements to Illinois' education system passed the Illinois Senate Thursday night with no opposition, and it did so with the full backing of teachers' unions.
With their massive membership and money, teachers unions carry a lot of influence. Yet, not only did they back the package, they made considerable concessions.
No longer will tenured teachers have as much job protection. Teachers will be subject to performance reviews, and evaluations could mean some will lose their jobs. In Chicago, teachers may have to work longer hours, even if the union does not agree.
The Illinois Education Association's President, Ken Swanson, acknowledged the focus was on students. He denies the unions were more willing to give in after watching the clamp down on workers' bargaining rights in states like Wisconsin.
"What this shows is that to have meaningful reform that will work, you have to have the unions at the table," Swanson said. "Here in Illinois what we've shown is you do not need to have Draconian, unwarranted attacks on public employee rights, collected bargaining. You can do this through collective bargaining, you can do this through bringing the parties to the table."
Advocates like Jessica Handy, with the group Stand for Children, laud the changes as significant for students.
"Having a great teacher in the classroom is the most important school-based factor in effecting student outcomes, and this shift to making performance the driving factor in personnel decisions is ultimately a huge win for children," Handy said.
The package came together this week after months of negotiations. Despite having the support of unions, advocates, school administrators, and Senators on both sides of the aisle, it could see changes in the House.
House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) said that chamber may push for some revisions.
"We hope that any changes that we might decide would be appropriate would not so upset the apple cart that we would end up with nothing," she said.
There's a possibility changes to the package could lead a stakeholder to withdraw support. Under the measure, Chicago Public Schools may prolong their school year and lengthen the school day.
Mailings to the University of Illinois shed new light on what may have occurred when a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln went missing more than 30 years ago.
The bust disappeared from Lincoln Hall in October 1979, but turned up a couple days later when an anonymous phone call led officers to its location - a tree stump on the U of I's golf course. The case was never solved, but just recently the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences got a response when making reference to incident in its 2011 winter newsletter.
LAS spokesman Dave Evensen said in the package, an altered male voice on a CD recording denied reports that the bust was damaged during the theft. He said this person went through great lengths to hide identity, with a fake name and address.
"This guy - he called himself the founder of the Statue Liberation Society," Evesen said. "And they were trying to find a way to make an impact on campus, and make these demands. And he recalled how they had stolen the Lincoln bust."
A few years later, Evensen said the group took credit for the 1982 theft and return of the bust of Lloyd Morey, a former U of I president and comptroller. It sought demands ranging from the enforcement of bike paths on campus, better dorm food... and better building security measures.
Evenson said LAS went to U of I police with the package, who said the case was closed since it went beyond the statute of limitations. The restored Lincoln bust is in the Spurlock Museum now, but will be back in Lincoln Hall once it reopens following extensive renovation work. The bust was created by Hermon Atkins MacNeil in 1928.
Illinois House Votes to Ban Trans Fats
Trans fats could soon be illegal in Illinois.
The former head of a well-respected journalism program at Northwestern University wants an outside probe into why he been placed on leave.
David Protess was the head of the Medill Innocence Project at Northwestern until the university announced on March 29 that he had been placed on leave for making false statements to university lawyers about one of his investigations.
Protess said he and his students helped get twelve wrongfully-convicted men out of jail. And former Illinois Gov. George Ryan credited their work when he imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000.
In May 2009, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office subpoenaed documents from Protess' students about one of their investigations into the case of a man convicted of murder. The school said Protess lied to Northwestern lawyers about which documents he had turned over to the man's lawyers.
Protess said the university has not provided all of the evidence against him, and he questions the university's motives for investigating him.
"One reason we've not gotten answers to those questions is because the review that the university conducted was done by three former prosecutors," Protess said. "You just can't have former prosecutors investigating an innocence project and expect to learn the truth."
Protess also accused the Cook County State's Attorney's Office of trying to discredit him because Protess had uncovered evidence that another man had been wrongfully convicted.
A Northwestern spokesman said the school will not release its full report about Protess, but he declined to comment further.
President Barack Obama returns home to Chicago Thursday to raise cash for his re-election campaign. The main fundraiser, taking place on Navy Pier, is being billed as the "fundraising kick-off" to the 2012 campaign.
For $100, President Obama's supporters can get in, with $250 good enough for what're claled "preferred tickets." A Democratic official says the president will be introduced by Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel, until last fall the president's chief of staff.
Mr. Obama is also attending higher-dollar events at a pair of swank Chicago restaurants, with individual donations topping out at - by law - $35,800.
After the evening of fundraising, he'll be staying overnight in the city.
The visit comes just over a week after the president filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, technically declaring his candidacy. The field of potential Republican challengers includes Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The judge presiding over former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's upcoming retrial has rejected a request from defense attorneys to let them see summaries of any FBI interviews with President Barack Obama.
Among the charges Blagojevich faces is that he sought to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job. Obama has never been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
Judge James Zagel said at a Thursday status hearing he's read the summaries and nothing in them is relevant to Blagojevich's defense.
Zagel denied a similar request before Blagojevich's first trial. The retrial is set to start Wednesday.
Zagel on Thursday also denied a request to delay the trial by several weeks to give defense attorneys more time to prepare.
New Census figures show that Hispanics now outnumber blacks for the first time in most U.S. metropolitan areas.
Hispanics became the largest minority group in 191 of 366 metro areas last year. Their population was lifted as blacks left many economically hard-hit cities in the North for the South and new Latino immigrants spread to different parts of the country. That number is up from 159 metro areas in 2000, when Hispanics were most commonly found in Southwest border states.
The new areas for Hispanics include Chicago, Grand Rapids, Mich., and Atlantic City, N.J., whose states will lose House seats in 2013.
The numbers from the 2010 count are having a big effect in many states, where political maps are being redrawn based on population size and racial makeup.
A second insurer is now protesting a state decision to hire a new HMO with a limited downstate network of doctors to provide health plans for tens of thousands of state employees and retirees.
Humana has joined Urbana-based Health Alliance in protesting the state's decision to contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois.
Chief State Procurement Officer Matt Brown told the News-Gazette in Champaign that reviewing the protests could take weeks. That could delay the scheduled May 1 start of enrollment for the new Blue Cross HMO plans.
The state says Blue Cross will save it money. But Humana and Health Alliance argue that many of the more than 100,000 people in their plans would have to travel to see primary care doctors or else pay higher rates by using preferred provider or open access plans.
A panel appointed by the Champaign County Board last fall has met its deadline to approve a new map consisting of 11 board districts for the 2012 elections, but the design could be rejected next month.
The county's Redistricting Commission reviewed six designs. It was allowed to forward multiple maps, but only the one known as '1-E' was approved on a seven-to-four vote. Backers say it maintains communities of interest, setting aside a 'majority minority district', or 60-percent African-American and Hispanic residents. But opponents say '1-E' lacks compact and contiguous districts, especially north and west of Champaign, where District 5 would take up much of the area.
An attempt by commission member and County Board Democrat Michael Richards to submit his own map was defeated eight to three. That was after Commission Chair and former Republican State Senator Rick Winkel suggested the incumbent had an ulterior motive on the independent panel.
"It's not your fault, Mr. Richards," he said. "But you are an incumbent member of the county board and a member of a political partisan caucus, and you are shifting lines here. It is reasonable for a member of the public to infer that you may have considered whether voters in a newly drawn district will re-elect you."
County Board Democrat and commission member Alan Kurtz took exception to Winkel's comment, calling it "the most partisan statement I've heard to date on this commission."
Richards said the approved "1-E" design will need some tweaking, but isn't sure how the county board will vote.
"It seems like everybody pretty much has the same idea about who should be in the same district," he said. "But I think, especially on things like the compactness of the maps, some of the others were okay. But I think that they require more from the commission if we're going to put them through. But again, I can't say what a majority of the county board is going to feel on the maps."
Designs 1E, 4D, and 5B were submitted by the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, and tweaked by Redistricting Commission. Two other failed maps were submitted by commission member Augustus Hallmon, and former Democratic County Board Candidate Eric Thorsland.
The board will discuss the map on April 26th, and is expected to vote on it May 3rd.
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