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Grant Cuts, Budget Impasse Blocks Aspiring Teacher's "Destiny"

 Last year, the longtime Andersonville resident was cast on the Swedish reality show, Allt för Sverige. Now, budget woes have him considering dropping out of college.
Last year, the longtime Andersonville resident was cast on the Swedish reality show, Allt för Sverige. Now, budget woes have him considering dropping out of college.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

ANDERSONVILLE — Over the last two years, James Morgan has experienced some unimaginable highs and followed by some devastating lows.

Last year, the 44-year-old father of two flew to Sweden to trace his family history on the reality game show "Allt för Sverige." Now, he's considering dropping out of Northeastern Illinois University after Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed legislation in February that would fund MAP (Monetary Awards Program) grants, which Morgan depends on to help pay for his schooling to become a teacher.

"I'm scared to death," said Morgan adding the stress has lead him to being diagnosed with depression.

"It's hard to process all this s---. I'm 44. I'm a dad. I'm a husband... I have a lot of crap going on, but I love education. I love watching kids come together and learn," he said.

Morgan's path to elementary education is far from typical. After graduating from high school in Wisconsin in the early 90s, he decided he was done with school because "I hated going there and I wasn't good at it."

For the next two decades, Morgan worked as a general store manager for Pizza Hut before losing his job in 2011. That's when he fell in love with elementary education and enrolled at NEIU as part of the Grow Your Own Teacher initiative.

"Nobody stressed [going] to college and broke it down for me. Nobody shook me. Now that it's been 30 years I'm so mad," said Morgan. "This is like my destiny."

The Grow Your Own Teacher program helps "parents, community members, and paraprofessionals in low-income communities to become highly qualified teachers," according to its website.

Candidates use a combination of state and federal aid to pay for their education in exchange for teaching in a low-income school for five years after completing their education.

Since July, the state has been operating without a budget because of a stalemate between Rauner and House Speaker Michael Madigan and other Democratic leadership.

The impasse has left funding for state aid, such as the MAP grants, in limbo. When Rauner vetoed legislation in February, he said the grants would "explode the state's budget deficit, and place further strain on social service providers."

The cuts and budget impasse have had various effects around the city.

Last week, the Illinois Institute of Technology announced that students would have to repay student loans after the state withheld the scholarships.

IIT Vice President of Enrollment Mike Gosz said the school had credited students for the amount of their grants in the fall optimistically hoping politicians would pass a budget, but could no longer afford to credit them for the money.

The school is now trying to coordinate loans for the 738 affected students. The loans would remain interest-free through September and then would rise to 6.8 percent interest rate, he said.

At Chicago State University, administration canceled spring break in order to end its spring semester two weeks early and announced it would send layoff notices to all 800 faculty, staff and administrators if the impasse isn't resolved.

During the nine-month impasse, NEIU dipped into its reserves to pay its bills, but those dollars are running out. In March, the university announced it was implementing furlough days for employees as Springfield continues to withhold tens of millions of dollars in state funds because of the budget gridlock.

The cost-saving measure began on March 14. Affected employees are furloughed one day a week for an unspecified amount of time.

According to NEIU spokesman Mike Dizon, the state is behind on $34 million in allocations to NEIU, along with $7.5 million in grant funds for students, which the university has fronted.

The cuts represent yet another road block for Morgan. NEIU hasn't asked students to pay back the MAP grants yet, but other schools have making him weary of racking up a bill he can't afford.

Considering his age, Morgan has ruled out taking out student loans to pay for his education.

"I don't have 20 years to pay back student loans," he said.

The Tribune reviewed state records to highlight some of the problems the program has faced since it was launched in January 2005. While teachers that launched their career through the program have said it changed their lives, critics like Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), says it "hasn't worked and is terribly inefficient," according to the Tribune.

"It is an example of politics still trumping merit, in terms of whether a program warrants continued funding," Murphy said.

Still, Morgan said "I'm getting the short hand of the deal" considering the time and commitment he's made to the program.

Aside from the 120 credits he's already accrued, he joined local school councils at Pierce Elementary School, which his children attend, and Trumbull Elementary School to help him better understand the Chicago Public School system.

"That took a lot of time and effort," he said. "When I signed up I had to make a commitment. I signed a paper that said I would teach at a low-income public school for five years."

"What about the commitment the state made to me? They dropped me," he said.

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