On the heels of a historic year of school choice advancement, including legislation that enacted universal or near-universal school choice programs in seven states, Illinois is poised to go in the opposite direction, delivering a blow to low-income families.
Specifically, the Democrat-controlled legislature in Illinois is positioned to let the Invest in Kids $100 million tax-credit scholarship program, enacted in 2017, sunset at the end of this calendar year. The action will nix a school choice program currently providing educational options to 9,000 low-income students.
As a tax-credit scholarship, the school choice program is not directly funded with taxpayer dollars but is privately funded by individuals and businesses who contribute through a qualified scholarship-granting organization. Regardless, state lawmakers intentionally opted not to extend the program during the spring legislative session by failing to include it in the state’s budget implementation bill. Several other bills introduced during the session that would have extended the program also failed.
According to Myles Mendoza, founder and former President of Empower Illinois, the organization that led the inception of the tax credit scholarship policy, “Despite daily pleas throughout the legislative session to extend the school choice program from parents, grandparents, foster parents, and guardians of children receiving the tax credit scholarship, Democratic House Speaker Chris Welch didn’t seem to even notice.”
The Democrat lawmakers’ loyalties lay with the public school teachers unions, who are stark opponents of school choice because having more children enrolled in public schools increases teacher staffing levels, equating to more members’ dues into union coffers, and who spend millions of dollars fueling Democratic political campaigns every year. It’s a vicious funding cycle, with Democrat politicians and teachers union leaders pledging unwavering allegiance to each other in this quid pro quo relationship. Clearly, the importance of providing low-income students an opportunity to receive a better education pales in comparison.
But there was another reason the teachers unions pressured Illinois’ Democratic lawmakers to ensure the school choice program ends: the program shed a glaring light on the magnitude of parents seeking to free their children from the failing union-controlled Illinois public schools. According to test data released by the Illinois State Board of Education, a startling 70% of Illinois public school students fail to read at grade level, and 75% fail to meet proficiency in math.
Not surprisingly, parents want better options for their children. The small tax-credit scholarship program’s demand was significant. More than 31,000 applied for the 9,000 scholarships last year. Low-income families in particular demonstrate a desperate desire for different learning options for their children — options the program provides.
Opponents claim the school choice program hurts public schools financially — a familiar rhetorical tactic employed by teachers unions and their Democrat lawmaker allies, as if taxpayer money should be used exclusively for the funding of public schools regardless of pitiful student learning results. In no other industry than government can an organization’s service or product fail so miserably and yet expect to maintain its customers. Doing so while demanding more money would be laughable anywhere else.
The problem is not more funding — Illinois’ public schools have proved that. The state spends an average of more than $16,000 per public school student per year. Chicago Public Schools spend more than $29,000 per student. So, Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin’s claim that “we are still not fully funding our schools” rings hollow. But then, when have public schools ever considered themselves fully funded?
Illinois Democrats’ decision not to extend the Invest in Kids program — funded by the generosity of Illinois citizens and businesses — will harm the 9,000 low-income students in their state currently enrolled in a program, and the thousands more who might have had better learning options than their failing public schools because of it.
But it’s not too late for these lawmakers to correct course. Although the spring legislative session has ended, a special session could be called, or the veto session in the fall would allow for the approval of an extension of the school choice program. Let’s hope the state will put the interests of its low-income students over those of teachers unions and politicians.