May 28, 2015

Agriculture community raises concerns on proposed state budget

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Dr. Joni White with some of her FFA students in the greenhouse at Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. From left: Noah Dowling, Abram Washington, Austin Carter, Anthony Tuel, Dr. Joni White, Richardo Vargas and Carson Bryant.

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Dr. Joni White with some of her FFA students in the greenhouse at Urbana High School in Urbana, Illinois on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. From left: Noah Dowling, Abram Washington, Austin Carter, Anthony Tuel, Dr. Joni White, Richardo Vargas and Carson Bryant.

The state budget for agricultural education is once again coming under the scythe.

In June 2010, the Illinois State Board of Education adopted a budget that zeroed out the $3 million funding under Gov. Pat Quinn, but by August, Quinn announced he restored it to $1.9 million.

Now Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed eliminating the funding that has provided more than $620,000 in incentive funding grants. It also provides more than $800,000 in other grants, resources and curriculum to more than 29,000 students and 321 programs a year at the middle and high school level, according to Jess Smithers, coordinator of Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education.

Mindy Bunselmeyer, associate executive director of the Illinois FFA Center, said the line item funds a variety of programs and resources for agricultural education in Illinois. FFA was previously known as Future Farmers of America.

“As you lose agriculture education opportunities at any of the previous levels, you’ve just impacted the industry with a smaller workforce, a smaller pool of young people to fill the jobs that they have that are open in their industry,” Bunselmeyer said.

Part of the funding helps support “Ag in the Classroom” programs for kindergarten through eighth grade, she said. And, through the incentive funding grant application, part of it is designated solely to go back into high schools that offer agricultural education. The grant allows schools to buy resources, materials and technology for their agriculture classrooms.

Another portion of the money pays for the Facilitating Coordination in Agricultural Education program, which Bunselmeyer said develops and keeps agricultural curriculums up-to-date.

Although in January the Illinois State Board of Education recommended the funding be increased from $1.8 million a year to $3 million, the Rauner administration said it should be cut completely. In Rauner’s budget proposal, the reasoning for the cut is that agricultural education is one of the largest programs “that serve(s) a select group of students and tie(s) up resources that could otherwise be used to help all students across Illinois.”

Though the cut affects students at all levels of schooling, many are concerned with the impact it could have on high school students.

Joan White, agriculture teacher at Urbana High School, said she has been trying to build up the school’s small agriculture department, where she teaches environmental science. Starting next fall, she plans to add two more classes: an introduction to veterinary science and animal and plant science.

Currently, there are 60 students signed up for those classes, though the number is not final.

“Any time that any of those hands-on vocational classes are cut, it really is hurtful,” White said. “Those are the classes that connect schools to jobs.”

Though the funding has been cut before and been saved, White said losing funding would severely impact her classes because they require a lot of resources to run them.

At the college level, a portion of the agricultural education funding goes toward the Growing Agriculture Science Teacher grant, which is used to encourage students to be agriculture teachers.

“We have a huge shortage of ag education majors and ag teachers in the state, and so we’re trying to grow more ag science teachers,” Bunselmeyer said. “So with that GAST money, that is working toward high school and college level students who are interested in jobs in teaching agriculture someday.”

Jacob Meisner is a rising senior studying agricultural science education at the University of Illinois. He said students often don’t know they want to go into the agriculture industry until they take part in agriculture education during high school, which is why the programs are so crucial at that level.

As a college student, Meisner said the cut would affect scholarships he receives, as well as access to teaching resources.

Because agricultural education is not one of the core subject areas, Meisner said it’s often one of the first cuts made because from an outside perspective, it seems like an easy choice.

“It’s just not fun being the scapegoat when budget cuts have to be made,” Meisner said.

Currently, Bunselmeyer said the Illinois FFA is calling on its members throughout the state to contact their local legislators, committees, the Illinois State Board of Education and Rauner’s office to voice their support for the line item.