Buried in the multi-billion dollar Illinois state budget, sits a line item tiny in amount ($1.8 million) but big on impact.
The Agriculture Education line item supports agriculture education in 321 Illinois middle schools and high schools, funds teacher recruitment, retention and professional development, and in general affects the lives of 17,250 Illinois FFA members.
For $1.8 million, the state’s return on investment is almost $11 million annually, earnings from students completing Supervised Agriculture Experience projects in their agriculture classes. That’s $11 million net. That’s a 611 percent return.
Of the 321 schools with agriculture departments, 77 percent offer dual-credit courses with graduate credits awarded in math, science and consumer education.
More than 25,000 students take agriculture courses and 17,250 are members of the Illinois Association FFA.
All this for $1.8 million, yet Governor Rauner’s proposed budget shows a $0 value for the Ag Ed line item. Zero. Nada. Nothing.
Now, I understand the governor’s message of shared sacrifice. Obviously, Illinois government has lived beyond its means for far too long and reigning in that spending will be painful. But I find it difficult to stay quiet about this particular sacrifice.
My passion for FFA and ag ed is no secret. The blue jacket gave me experiences that most certainly contributed to where I find myself today in the ag community. My Supervised Agriculture Experience ballooned from a simple 4-H project into a herd of beef cows, their calves and a bull. They paid my way through college. Every. Last. Dime.
So, what is agriculture education? Why is it unique? Why should it have a designated line item, when other disciplines do not? And why should YOU engage in the political process? This isn’t just about 321 schools and 25,000 kids. This is about our state’s economy and our future.
What is agriculture education?
The Ag Ed model is unique in that FFA takes classroom instruction and applies it to career development events, community service projects and leadership development. In addition the Supervised Agriculture Experience (SAE) program or work-based learning encourages students to start their own businesses, track their performance at a summer job or pursue an area of interest through service learning. This three-circle model (classroom instruction, FFA and SAE) brings book learning to life and develops well-rounded individuals who graduate high school service-oriented, career-ready, and leadership-able.
How is the Ag Ed line item allocated?
A portion of the line item is divided among qualifying ag programs for the purchase of classroom equipment and resources –microscopes, welders, power tools, i-pads and greenhouses. Teaching horticulture is easier when a student is planting in a garden bed and not a paper cup.
Teachers receive professional development opportunities. Universities support their teacher training programs specific to agriculture education. (ag ed teachers are too few and far between to begin with). New curriculum is developed and old curriculum is rewritten to align with new learning standards.
Agriculture is the foundation of Illinois’ economy and I’m not just talking about corn and soybean fields or hog barns and cattle pastures. We are the number one pumpkin and horseradish producer in the country. Illinois is home to DelMonte, Kraft Foods, McDonalds, and Libby’s Pumpkins. Caterpiller is here. Wyffels Hybrids, Pioneer Seed . . . agriculture accounts for one in four jobs in the state.
It just makes sense that we encourage and support the development and improvement of agriculture education in our schools, thus supporting our state’s economic growth.
How do we keep the line item funded?
Reach out and talk to someone! As one state representative told me, “If we don’t hear from you, how are we supposed to know what is important to you.” If we aren’t sharing our cause, someone else will come forward with a more compelling story. In this budget battle, everyone is looking for an extra million.
The Ag Ed/FFA story is not exclusive to current students and teachers. This is a story that involves farmers, agribusiness men and women, school boards and community leaders.
At a recent local FFA Alumni meeting, a business owner was lamenting, “I can’t find a machinist to save my life.”
He had called the local community colleges, asked around at vocational schools and was told, “The kids come to us with no interest because it wasn’t taught in high school.”
Skilled labor is needed in our workforce, in our own backyards. That’s part of the story of agriculture education in our high schools.
Steps for Engagement
1) Invite your state senator and representative(s) to your chapter’s FFA banquet, to visit your classroom or business. Or meet them on their turf. Legislators are on break now. They go back to Springfield the week of April 13. Make the call today! Find your legislators’ contact information here.
2) Contact the members of the Elementary and Secondary Education Appropriations committee. Find their information here.
3) Send correspondence to the party leaders: Speaker Madigan, Jim Durkin, Christine Radogno and John Cullerton. Find their information here.
4) Remind typical agriculture supporters of ag ed’s importance. Talk to your county farm bureau and send a short note to Illinois’ Director of Agriculture, Phil Nelson.
5) Of course, follow Governor Rauner on facebook or twitter (@GovRauner) and engage. He has been very attentive to agriculture lately attending several events, visiting schools and programs. Encourage the governor to learn more by respectfully sharing your agriculture story.
6) Don’t forget about your own schools. Seek opportunities to share your chapter’s accomplishments with your school board. Buy lunch for the guidance counselors and school administration to talk about the value of the ag ed program and FFA involvement.
A state budget should be passed by May 31, but indications are these discussions will stretch long after the deadline. The longer negotiations last, the harder it will be to sell the cause. Start now. Make noise. Share why agriculture, agriculture education and FFA are important to Illinois.