How Dems seeking 6th Congressional seat would change education

To run for Congress requires all kinds of education - some of it formal, much of it political.

Seven Democrats from across the suburbs are getting an on-the-fly education in running a major race as they seek their party's nomination to square off against 6th District U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam.

During a forum in front of 800 potential voters in Carol Stream, the seven candidates all expressed their hopes and goals for the nation's education system - be it offering free in-state or two-year tuition, creating programs to pay off an education by working in public service or ensuring public schools have a high emphasis on diversity.

Roskam, a Wheaton Republican who has held the seat since 2007, said he has explored policy changes that could help ease the cost of higher education while serving as chairman of the House committee on Oversight & Government Reform.

As a parent and a former teacher, Roskam said he'd like to see tax policy changes that aim to incentivize donors to support student scholarships - instead of naming rights for buildings or arenas.

"When institutions prioritize helping their students and creating efficiencies on campus, they can find creative ways to make that happen," Roskam said.

In advance of the March 20 primary, here is what the Democrats who are trying to earn the chance to run against Roskam say about education:

Ryan Huffman

Huffman's experience illustrates why he says the student loan system needs to change.

Huffman said he pays $800 a month toward $100,000 of student loan debt from an undergraduate education at Northwestern University and a graduate education at the University of Chicago. He expects he'll be paying that much each month until 2045.

Huffman, a 31-year-old data analyst from Palatine, said students may continue to need graduate degrees, especially if their major proves not to offer a viable career as the economy shifts.

"We don't know what the technology of the future is going to be yet," Huffman said.

"This is going to continue to be a problem."

Huffman said he wants the government to require income-based payment programs, offer tax deductions for student loans and provide free community college to lower the demand - and the cost - of a four-year education.

"My entire generation is in danger of not being able to contribute to the economy," Huffman said. "We can't get married or raise a family or buy a house, and that's hurting the entire economy."

Amanda Howland

As a former teacher and a trustee for the College of Lake County, Howland said she's heavily involved in education.

One priority she'd like to see expanded is creation of "college promise" programs that provide a free two-year education at community colleges to students who maintain a certain grade-point average and meet standards.

"We can help students with educational costs," said Howland, 65, of Lake Zurich, "by continuing to partner with businesses to say, 'What do you need? We can provide the programs if you help us pay the cost so the students don't come out with debt.'"

Carole Cheney

Education can be an equalizer, but only if it's equally available to everyone, which Cheney says it's not.

"It gets down to the income inequality issue yet again," said Cheney, 56, of Naperville, and a former district chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Bill Foster of the 11th District.

"The wealthy are able to get an education and others are not."

Cheney said she hesitates to support free college, but she thinks fully paid tuition should be available through a program that would require students who receive aid to work in public service for a number of years to pay it back.

"It should not be in this country that your economics determine your education," she said.

Becky Anderson Wilkins

Anderson Wilkins wants to work on funding issues that she said made it cheaper for her daughter to attend college in Scotland than in Illinois.

"Students wonder, 'Should I go to college? Because I will be saddled with debt,'" said Anderson Wilkins, a 59-year-old bookseller and Naperville City Council member.

She would like to address the issue by creating free in-state tuition for residents.

"We need taxes that support our education system," she said.

"We need to figure out different ways to fund higher education."

Jennifer Zordani

Access to higher education is a crucial piece of building self sufficiency and economic success, said Zordani, a 53-year-old regulatory and financial services attorney of Clarendon Hills.

Zordani said she would support moves to expand need-based federal grants, stop for-profit colleges from misleading students, allow students to wipe out debt by working 10 years in public service, limit interest rates and make loans simpler.

"Students and their parents need transparent details about student loan rates," she said, "so that they can make sound decisions about managing education costs."

Sean Casten

Increased diversity and understanding is one byproduct of a strong public education system, said Casten, a 46-year-old scientist, engineer and entrepreneur from Downers Grove.

He said schools should focus on exchange programs and exposing all students to others who are not like them because these experiences create lifelong learning.

"One of the singular advantages of a public education that doesn't get nearly enough attention is that it's unfortunately one of the last points in a lot of people's lives where you are truly exposed to people all across the socioeconomic strata, the racial strata, the disability strata," Casten said. "And if you go to a school that has that diversity, you carry it with you the rest of your life.

Kelly Mazeski

As the first in her family to graduate from college, Mazeski said she emerged with loans but was able to pay them back because of the lower costs of college at the time.

A former chemist, Mazeski, 58, of Barrington Hills, said it's "imperative" for the government to support initiatives to encourage girls to pursue the STEM fields of science, technology engineering and math, which are likely to increase their earning potential.

She also wants to focus education efforts on tackling rising administration costs and offering more grants, low-interest-rate loans and other federal assistance to equalize opportunity for all students.

"We need to make secondary education, including community colleges and trade schools, affordable for all Americans who would like to pursue it," Mazeski said.

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Peter Roskam

6th District boundaries

The 6th Congressional District takes the shape of a "C" and stretches from Naperville to Tower Lakes in parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties.

Republican Peter Roskam of Wheaton has held the seat since 2007. The district includes all or parts of the following communities: Algonquin, Barrington, Barrington Hills, Bartlett, Burr Ridge, Carol Stream, Cary, Clarendon Hills, Crystal Lake, Darien, Deer Park, Downers Grove, East Dundee, Elgin, Forest Lake, Fox River Grove, Glen Ellyn, Gilberts, Hawthorn Woods, Hinsdale, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Kildeer, Lake Barrington, Lake in the Hills, Lakewood, Lake Zurich, Lisle, Lombard, Long Grove, Naperville, North Barrington, Oak Brook, Oakbrook Terrace, Oakwood Hills, Palatine, Port Barrington, Rolling Meadows, South Barrington, Sleepy Hollow, South Elgin, St. Charles, Tower Lakes, Trout Valley, Warrenville, Wayne, West Chicago, West Dundee, Westmont, Wheaton, Willowbrook and Winfield.

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