Monday, April 6, 2009

Controversial after-school grant program ended

April 5, 2009 7:54 PM 3 Comments

SPRINGFIELD -- It took a mammoth budget crisis and the arrest of Rod Blagojevich, but state leaders are shelving a dubious after-school grant program that a Tribune investigation found included many handouts that rewarded one lawmaker's political supporters.

The Illinois State Board of Education deleted $9.7 million for the controversial program from next year's budget proposal, and new Gov. Pat Quinn backed up that decision.The decision comes after the Tribune reported last year that state Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) helped at least 21 campaign workers and donors get the grants, some totaling $20,000.Nearly half of the 48 grant recipients the Tribune investigated were found to be running dubious programs or declined to show how the money was spent.

In one case, a church sat darkened and padlocked during after-school hours even though it was presented as a tutoring center. In another, a woman used her grant for billboard ads to encourage teens to attend community college but pocketed nearly half the money.All of the questionable projects shared the same sponsor: Hendon.The veteran lawmaker recently said that not every organization he helped abused the grants. "Even though everybody might not get it right, that's no reason to kill a program that we have to have," he said.Hendon said he will fight to restore the grants to keep children busy after school.

If lawmakers are going to raise the state income tax, then "I got to get something for my people," he said.The senator said he can't help it if some organizations misused state money and that it's the Board of Education's job to monitor the grants. The agency has said it doesn't have the manpower to police the grantees.Following the Tribune's investigation, the board tightened its grant requirements.

In December, less than two weeks after then-Gov. Blagojevich was arrested, a state board that for years had rubber-stamped the lawmaker-requested grants decided to freeze the program.Agency spokesman Matt Vanover said Blagojevich did not instruct the board to do so. Only $1.26 million of the funds set aside were spent, he said."The board decided to focus its resources in areas that would help schools to do the most for students," Vanover said, which meant putting more money in the general fund instead of paying for specialized programs.Besides the after-school grants, the agency also cut $8 million for a class-size reduction test program, $7 million for gifted education and $200,000 for the Adler Planetarium. It was part of $111 million in cuts.

America in Harmony

"Homegrown arts to make us into one people, to teach us who we are."
Jeremy McCarterNEWSWEEK
From the magazine issue dated Apr 13, 2009

Even a day later, Wynton Marsalis couldn't explain why he was crying so hard during the speech he gave last Monday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. "Man, I don't know," he told me. "I'm not really a person that's effusive. I'm a quiet type of person. Dick Vermeil"—the notoriously teary ex-NFL coach—"that's not me."

The impeccably cool artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center had come here to deliver the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. His speech, which he titled "The Ballad of the American Arts," was a bravura 50-minute survey of how our country has used "homegrown arts to make us into one people, to teach us who we are." He made surprising connections, praising Ben Franklin and Charlie Parker in turn for being "the living embodiment of down-home sophistication." And, because he'd brought a quintet and his trumpet along, he added musical illustrations, tracing the progress of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" through Sousa's marches to the Mickey Mouse Club theme. "I'm trying to tell you all this stuff was connected before the DNA told you," he said.

Marsalis's eloquence and easy humor made his tears at the finale all the greater a surprise. He bowed and cried, and bowed and cried, which made the crowd cheer even more. Though he couldn't articulate what brought on this emotion, he told me it came from feeling "overwhelmed"—from putting into words the full weight of the tragic, glorious history bound up in our arts, and vice versa: "That's our life, that's the life I live, so it started to hit me."