Proposed Illinois budget threatens digital literacy program

Vickie Oriekaose is in her third week of free classes to get certified as a Microsoft Office Specialist, which she hopes will help her land a job that offers decent pay. Microsoft estimates that people who are certified can make as much as $16,000 a year more than workers who aren't accredited.

"I'm trying to get back into the workforce," said the 58-year-old widow, who has been a stay-at-home mom. Oriekaose has a son who is a senior in high school, and twins who are sophomores.

But the Eliminate the Digital Divide grant program, which this year is providing $4.1 million to 102 organizations that are training 25,000 people, would lose funding under the proposed 2016 budget of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

"Digital literacy is essential in today's world, but the Eliminate the Digital Divide Program was created 14 years ago when the digital landscape was much different," said Catherine Kelly, a spokeswoman for the governor. "Gov. Rauner was forced to make some tough choices to fill a $6 billion budget hole created by years of financial recklessness, and this budget prioritizes core programs to restructure state government, putting the state back on a fiscally responsible path that uses taxpayer dollars more effectively."

Some suggest that worries about digital divides are overstated since many community centers, libraries, universities, senior centers and small-business development centers already provide such services.

The nonprofit People's Resource Center says if it loses its Eliminate the Digital Divide grant, it would likely mean cuts to its more advanced computer certification programs throughout DuPage County, including the Microsoft Office Specialist classes that Oriekaose is taking, said Elizabeth Higgins, the center's senior director of programs.

Those are the types of programs most likely to enhance someone's chances of at least getting a job interview, she said.

Only about 10 percent of Wheaton's People's Resource Center funding comes from government sources, including the Eliminate the Digital Divide program, but classes "like these advanced computer classes that help people get work will just cease."

The Eliminate the Digital Divide grant also is key in outfitting a technology center that opens in Westmont on April 1, Higgins said. People's Resource Center received $122,000 in 2012 and 2014 from the state program, records show.

Michael Matos, director of adult education programs for Albany Park Community Center in Chicago, said elimination of the program would hurt people who "do not typically have opportunities to use computers in their everyday lives, for advancing in the workplace, or to progress in their education." Matos said many are "low-income families and individuals, limited-English immigrants, especially Hispanics, adults with limited education, and unemployed and underemployed individuals," including military veterans.

"If the Eliminate the Digital Divide program didn't receive funding for fiscal year 2016, we would have to discontinue eight training classes that run every six weeks and 12 hours weekly of open community access to the computer technology center," Matos said.

Matos said about 1,800 people use the center, funded mostly by a $75,000 grant that ends in June.

To be sure, the state program has had previous funding blips. The program wasn't funded in fiscal 2013, Irma Lopez, Illinois Department of Commerce technology development manager, told a public meeting of the digital divide's advisory committee this month. That year, People's Resource Center, which has 11 sites, cut its Microsoft Office certification classes.

Dan O'Neil, an advisory committee member who also is executive director of Smart Chicago Collaborative, whose mission is to increase Internet access, said at the meeting that he believes funding should be doubled.

Higgins, of the People's Resource Center, said her organization has a waiting list for its more specialized classes. "You just increased our waiting list," she said of the impact that losing the Eliminating the Digital Divide grant would have.

Lombard resident Deon Jackson, 41, a college graduate who has worked as a teller in a bank and a front-desk clerk in a hotel, believes he could land an office job if he is certified as a Microsoft Office Specialist. Jackson works part time as an usher at a local arena and theater. "It's a great job," he said, "but it doesn't pay the bills."

Oriekaose, who lives in Naperville and once worked as a loan officer for a credit union, said she has tried to build her resume by staying active, including by volunteering at her children's schools and at a tax-assistance center.

"When I go to talk to an employer I can say I'm current, and I know how to do this," she said of Microsoft Office. "I can go in confident, and that can boost my economic and social status."

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