05/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Schools In Trouble: Layoffs Could Top 20,000 In State School Districts

Larger class sizes. Fewer sports and arts programs. No more special treatment for gifted, special-ed and ESL students.

These are some of the many hard decisions school districts across the state are making, as a statewide budget crisis hits the education sector especially hard.

A coalition of education groups predicts more than 20,000 layoffs at Illinois schools, based on surveys sent to 944 districts statewide. More than half of the job cuts are certified teachers.

"What looms this school year is devastating for all of Illinois. It's going to significantly diminish the quality of education throughout the state," said Charlie McBarron, spokesman for the Illinois Education Association, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

The state of Illinois already owes an enormous amount of money to school districts statewide. By far its biggest obligation, from the same Sun-Times report, is to Chicago; the state owes Chicago Public Schools over $250 million. Overall, state comptroller spokesman Alan Henry told the Daily Herald that Illinois is behind $782 million in payments to schools.

And the 2010-2011 budget doesn't paint any rosier of a picture for education. In fact, Gov. Quinn's proposed budget includes deep cuts from schools, which would be offset by his proposed income-tax increase. Critics of the plan say the governor is holding schools hostage to force the legislature to support the tax hike.

Either way, teacher layoffs are coming at districts across the state. The Sun-Times reports Chicago will be cutting 3,200 teachers; the second-largest district, Elgin School District U-42, will make over 1,000 layoffs.

The most obvious remedy for fewer teachers is larger classes. Studies show that small differences in class size have a negligible impact on quality of education, according to a Chicago Tribune report -- but parents are still strongly opposed to making classes larger.

Administrators have assured them that the modest increases being proposed at many schools won't make a significant difference -- and research largely backs them up. Still, parents across the region are venting frustration at school board meetings and pleading for teachers to negotiate lower salaries to save jobs.

Case in point: In Highland Park, school officials thought they could trim $300,000 off a growing deficit by adding one or two students to elementary classrooms. They quickly backed off the proposal after running into a storm of opposition.

With class-size increases largely off the table, program cuts are the equally unpleasant alternative that schools find themselves left with. The Sun-Timesreports:

Indeed, districts such as west suburban Morton High School District 201 are axing athletics and student activities. CPS has targeted non-varsity sports. Elgin has cut teams and shut down swimming pools.

Other districts, like Queen Bee District 16 in southwest suburban Glendale Heights and Somonauk Community Unit School District 432 in the south suburbs, have wiped out art and music programs.

Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 is getting rid of band for fifth-graders. In Cary, it's gifted programs. In Kankakee, bilingual ed and reading programs will go. And CPS is taking the knife to pre-school.

If Gov. Quinn's political plan fails -- or even if it succeeds -- this is likely only the beginning of a long round of harsh realities that Illinois public schools will face in the years to come.