Barbara Kessel on "Pages for Pennies," a book sale to benefit Books to Prisoners happening Friday, April 16 through Sunday, April 18.
My name is Barbara Kessel and I am a volunteer with Books to Prisoners, an organization that collects donated books from the community and ships them to individual inmates at the 28 state prisons for adults + five federal penitentiaries in Illinois. We have always imagined that our efforts supplemented the prison libraries However, we discovered recently that the state budget crisis began to affect the prisons seven years ago, long before it has hit us in schools and social services. In these seven years, the prison libraries have not had any budget to purchase anything, - books, newspapers, magazines or scotch tape. Many of them are shut down for lack of a librarian.
We would like to call your attention as taxpayers to the fact that recidivism for 2009 in the state of Illinois was 51%, that is, over half of the prisoners released, return for another incarceration. Research has shown that any kind of educational factor while in prison - such as access to reading material - reduces recidivism by as much as one third. If the recidivism were reduced by 1/3 in Illinois that could save us $17 million, not to mention the human savings of making families whole again.
Our own efforts here in Champaign-Urbana make a modest but significant difference to thousands of prisoners. You can be part of that by coming to our book sale where we make the money to pay postage. The Book Sale, "Pages for Pennies" is going on today, Friday from 4 to 8, tomorrow 8 to 5 and Sunday 10 to 2 at the old Post Office in Urbana, Broadway and Elm.
However, it is impossible for us to replace the prison libraries. Thus, we urge you to help us with your ideas for how to keep open access to books in prison, to talk to your state legislator, or to join us in a campaign of working with the Illinois Department of Corrections to maintain the prisoners' right to read, so they can take the smart way out and never return. www.books2prisoners.org, website of Books to Prisoners.
If you pay attention to current news you know that school districts are struggling financially in Illinois. I am a member of the Urbana School Board. We just completed a painful process of cutting $2 million from a very lean District budget, one that was cut pretty much to the bone a few years ago when the District had to shave $3 million from its budget. Despite our efforts to make the "least worst decisions," our budget cuts impacted critical programs, effective personnel, highly valued services and activities. I appreciate the time adults and youth took to express their concerns about the budget cuts. I especially appreciate their recognition of the impossible task before the Urbana School Board.
I want to use today's forum to remind listeners that the only reason school boards are having to reduce or eliminate critical programs and personnel is because education is underfunded in our state. I challenge the views expressed by some in our local media and in Springfield that say we should be spending less on education. The Illinois Constitution says that our state has the "primary responsibility" for financing the system of education. Many interpret "primary" to mean the state is responsible for 51% of the cost of education in Illinois. Our state's contribution to school funding is currently around 30%, the second lowest level among the 50 states. The inadequacy of education funding in Illinois is exacerbated by our overreliance on property taxes to pay for public education which results in the widest education funding gap in the Midwest. According to Illinois Kids Count 2009, local revenue per pupil ranged from a low of $2,900 in a Peoria school district to almost $18,000 per pupil in a Kenilworth school district. School districts at the high end of the funding gap attract better teachers, purchase new textbooks and computers, pay for extensive fine arts and athletic programs….all of the line items that took a hit in Urbana's recent budget cuts.
Sadly, some legislators are more concerned with their reelection in November than doing what's right for their districts today. Unless we want to revisit the painful task of cutting highly effective programs and teachers in our schools again and again, we need to say clearly and often that we need more funding for education in Illinois.