18 states embrace school choice as Illinois hurts low-income families

18 states embrace school choice as Illinois hurts low-income families

Seven states enacted new private school choice programs in 2023 and 11 states expanded existing programs. But Illinois killed its Invest in Kids tax-credit scholarship program, ending the only help for nearly 10,000 low-income students.

This week is “National School Choice Week.” Education advocates in 18 states will celebrate the start or expansion of school choice programs in 2023, dubbed “the year of universal choice.”

Seven states enacted new private-school choice programs and 11 states expanded existing programs. Around 20 million students nationwide are now eligible for a private-school choice program.

Not in Illinois. Here, 2023 marked the end of a scholarship program which gave nearly 10,000 low-income students the opportunity to attend a school of their choice. That denial resulted from teachers unions spreading money and threats until state lawmakers agreed to let the Invest in Kids school choice program die.

Illinois lawmakers failed to save scholarship program for low-income students

A majority of the students who received Invest in Kids scholarships in the 2022-2023 school year came from families living on less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or $49,025 for a family of four.

Yet lawmakers ignored the needs of those 10,000 disadvantaged students and overwhelming public support for the program. Instead, they kowtowed to the wants of teachers unions, who put significant dollars behind their attack on the program.

Teachers unions have invested over $21.5 million in sitting state lawmakers between 2010 and the end of October 2023. Nearly $1.5 million of that was in the five months leading up to the General Assembly’s fall session when lawmakers let the program die, Illinois State Board of Elections records show.

Union bosses proved they were more concerned with protecting their monopoly on education than in supporting the needs of Illinois’ students. If they really prioritized students’ interests, they would support programs which expand educational options for low-income students, even if that means some students choose private schools.

Despite opposing school choice for other families, Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates and Illinois Education Association chief lobbyist Sean Denney chose private schools for their own children. They made that choice because they can afford to do so, yet aggressively fought the ability of impoverished families to do the same through Invest in Kids.

Schools closing

At least two private schools will be closing at the end of the 2023-2024 school year after the scholarship program ends. More than half of the students at those schools relied on the Invest in Kids scholarships to attend, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Killing the Invest in Kids program and taking away scholarships from nearly 10,000 low-income kids wasn’t enough for CTU. Next on its agenda is taking away schooling options from thousands of minority and low-income students at public selective enrollment Chicago schools.

Members of the Chicago Board of Education, appointed by former-CTU organizer Mayor Brandon Johnson, approved a resolution in December 2023 which would transition CPS away from “privatization and admissions/enrollment policies” that allow students options to enroll in public selective-enrollment schools, among others. Johnson picked public selective-enrollment schools for his own children, a choice former CTU president Jesse Sharkey also made for his kids.

States expand school choice in 2023

Illinois is the outlier in removing its school choice program. In 2023, seven states enacted new private-school choice programs and 11 states expanded existing programs. This resulted in access to private school choice programs for around 20 million students nationwide.

Ten states now have universal or near-universal private school choice programs, meaning nearly 100% of their students are eligible to participate in their state’s program. These programs come in the form of education savings accounts, voucher programs or tax credits.

Prior to 2023, only Arizona and West Virginia had universal eligibility, but now they’ve been joined by Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.

With a total of 30 states now providing some type of private school choice to their families, Illinois’ removal of the Invest in Kids scholarship program put Illinois on the wrong track. Lawmakers should consider ways to expand educational opportunities for more students, especially those from low-income families.

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