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CHARLESTON -- Like other Illinois school districts, Charleston has been battered by state funding reductions.

The school board has needed to eliminate some teaching posts, cut transportation money for extracurricular activities, and take other cost-saving steps to offset the funding shortfall.

Charleston resident Michelle Lassak, who has two children in school, said she is extremely concerned about dwindling education funding, so she is more focused on state-level elections than the presidential race.

However, Lassak said Illinois is not the only place where education quality varies from district to district based on local and state economic conditions. Lassak said she wants the presidential candidates to address ways to "level the playing field" among schools throughout the country.

"I feel like some students are not receiving the best education they could receive based on where they live," Lassak said.

Arthur resident Ariana Cherry, who has a daughter in high school, said she too would like to see how the candidates plan to equally fund school districts. She said some children have better access to education because of where they live.

"All children deserve a great education--- no matter what their ZIP codes are," Cherry said.

Jan Meadows, who retired after teaching for 36 years in Bloomington and Normal, said the disparity in education quality among school districts is a "civil rights issue," but she has heard little from Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump about this or other education issues.

Meadows said Clinton has offered familiar "rhetoric" about paying teachers more and starting education earlier for children. Meadows said Trump has emphasized charter and private schools, which she said would make U.S. education "lopsided" in favor of students who can attend these schools.

The U.S. government can't just "throw money at the problem" of how to provide equal education but should lead efforts to overhaul the way education is funded, Meadows said. For instance, she said Illinois schools are too dependent on property tax-based funding.

"The candidates have not really talked too much about education overall," said Amie Keeton, who has three children in the Bloomington school district.

Cherry said both Clinton and Trump worry her because of concerns about their trustworthiness and the "baggage" they bring with them. She said Clinton did have a good idea about providing chances for all children to learn computer science.

"Computers and advanced technology have become such a large part of our world in the workforce, and it is important that they have these skills as they grow into adults," Cherry said.

Lavonne Chaney, a retired middle school principal in Shelbyville, said she has some real concern whether Trump really understands the issues that are going on in education right now. She said Clinton has worked with education issues throughout her career, so she seems to have a better understanding.

Chaney said she is concerned about the large amount of time that is having to be spent preparing students for "high stakes tests" involving Common Core State Standards. She said cash-strapped school districts are dropping art, music, industrial arts, and other electives while focusing on these tests.

"I just think we are taking so many opportunities away for children to grow. We have to focus our curriculum to the test and put aside a lot of the curriculum that I think make our students well rounded," Chaney said.

Keeton said she is concerned about school districts having to meet state and federal mandates, such as preparing for Common Core and PARCC assessment tests, without having enough money allocated for these tasks.

With the prospect of having three children in college at the same time, Keeton said she knows firsthand that having affordable access to college is an important for issue for students and their parents.

Lassak, whose son is in high school, said many students have to fund their college education with loans and then spend years paying off this debt. Both Keeton and Lassak said they are interested in Clinton's proposal for debt-free college, but are unsure about how this idea would be implemented.

Meadows said a high school education no longer adequately prepares graduates for entering the modern workforce. She said students need a trade certification or college degree to succeed as professionals. She said a free junior college education should be part of the future of education.

During the presidential election season, Meadows said she has been unpleasantly surprised to see polled voters rank education issues as a low priority and the candidates not offer up a comprehensive education plan.

"People are concerned about the roads but not schools that are falling apart. I don't understand that," Meadows said.



Rob Stroud is a reporter for the JG-TC, covering the city of Mattoon, Lake Land College, Cumberland County and areas including Oakland, Casey and Martinsville.

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