SPRINGFIELD — On paper, $34 million in cuts to Illinois’ schools sound scary. In reality, it’s a tiny slice of total education spending.

By Benjamin Yount

SPRINGFIELD — On paper, $34 million in cuts to Illinois’ schools sound scary. In reality, it’s a tiny slice of total education spending.

That money — what the White House says Illinois will lose in education grant money should sequestration cuts happen — is .35 percent of Illinois’ total education budget, which is $9.5 billion.

If  looking only at federal dollars spent in Illinois classrooms, the $34 million amounts to 1.15 percent, as the state got $2.9 billion from Washington, D.C., for its current education budget.

But that’s not what people will hear in talking points sent by the White House. Instead, the Obama administration is saying the loss of .35 percent of Illinois’ education budget will put 460 teachers or teachers’ aides “at risk.”

“We’ve seen the reduction of more than 6,000 teachers since (2010) because of state budget cuts,” Mary Fergus, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said.

Fergus said any cuts to school spending, no matter how small, would hurt. But Fergus said the $34 million in grant money doesn’t comprise a significant part of Illinois’ education budget.

“Very little of education funding in Illinois comes from the federal government,” Fergus explained. “This is a cut to a very small pot of federal funds.”

The $34 million on the sequestration chopping block was earmarked for low-income schools and special education classes.

Few local school districts would be surprised if they lose any of that money. Fergus said her office has been working with schools since last spring to let them know how sequestration cuts could affect the state.

Steve Staneck, a research fellow at the free market Heartland Institute, said sequestration is more headline than spending cut.

“The cuts amount to a drop in a bucket. They should have almost no impact,” Stanek said. “But I suspect the government will look for ways to make people feel pain, because making people feel pain will make them scream for more spending.”

The White House was warning people about the pain Monday.

“These cuts would have macroeconomic consequences. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost,” said Jason Furman, assistant to the president for Economic Policy.

States on Monday got a preview of what will happen, Furman said, unless Congress agrees to avoid, or to delay, the $85 billion in sequestration cuts.

But even Furman admitted no one knows for sure what will happen.

“In some cases it could be a little better, in some cases it could be a little worse,” Furman said. “Depending on how you reprioritize the money.”

But who defines “priority?”

Geoff Oman, marketing manager for the Chicago Rockford International Airport, defines his priority as the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision flying team and the headline act for the Rockford AirFest.

“We’re selling tickets now, and have been since December,” Oman said. “But we’re in wait-and-see mode now. We’re going forward as if this is going to happen.”

If the Blue Angels, or any of AirFest’s other military acts — including Army parachute team the Golden Knights — is cut because of sequestration, the entire air show may have to be scrapped.

“Canceling altogether is an option,” Oman said. “But unfortunately we don’t have a lot of control. We all cast our votes and the people who won are in control now. And we have to deal with it.”

Contact Benjamin Yount at

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