Chicago Teachers Union tries to kill school choice for low-income students

Chicago Teachers Union tries to kill school choice for low-income students

Spring test data shows demographic achievement gaps persist in Chicago Public Schools, yet the Chicago Teachers Union wants to eliminate a scholarship program giving low-income students a way out of the underperforming public school system.

Low-income students are struggling to meet proficiency in Chicago Public Schools: only 14% read at grade level and 9% scored proficient in math.

Now the Chicago Teachers Union wants to eliminate Illinois’ only school choice program. The Invest in Kids Act provides a choice for families and students who can’t afford schooling options outside the public system but are seeking a better fit beyond traditional neighborhood schools.

If CTU and its allies get their way, over 9,000 low-income students across the state will lose their scholarships to attend private school.

Achievement gaps in spring test data, particularly among low-income and minority students

The Illinois State Board of Education recently released test data from spring 2022. It shows Chicago Public Schools students are not receiving the preparation they need to perform at proficiency in core subjects. This problem is even more acute among low-income, Black and Hispanic students.

Just 14% of 3rd through 8th grade students from low-income families met proficiency standards in reading and 9% in math this spring. Compared to students who are not from low-income families, low-income students were 28 percentage points less likely to score as proficient in reading and 27 percentage points less likely in math.

The disparity in performance is even greater among Chicago public high school students. This spring, just 13% of low-income high school students met reading and math proficiency on the Standardized Achievement Test used for college admittance. High school students who are not from low-income families were 46% proficient in reading and 43% in math on the SAT.

Black and Hispanic students also struggled to meet proficiency, especially compared to white and Asian students. On average, just 11% of Black students in grades 3 through 8 scored at proficiency in reading and less than 6% in math, while 17% of Hispanic students scored at grade level in reading and 11% in math.

Meanwhile, 46% and 44% of white students were proficient in reading and math, respectively. Asian students scored as proficient in core subjects at greater rates, with around half reading and performing math at or above grade-level.

Demographic achievement gaps were also prevalent among high school students in CPS. This spring, a lower proportion of Black and Hispanic students scored as proficient on the SAT in both reading and math compared to white and Asian students.

Chicago Public Schools students on average are not prepared to perform at proficiency level, but this problem is even more acute for low-income, Black and Hispanic students.

The Invest in Kids tax scholarship program offers options

Despite opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union and its allies, the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program offers families more choice in their children’s educations.

The Invest in Kids Act encourages donors to fund scholarships for low-income children so they can attend a school of their choice. Donors who contribute to a scholarship-granting organization get an income tax credit equal to 75% of their donation. The state limits the program to $75 million per year.

Students must come from a household with an income below 300% of the federal poverty level to be eligible for a scholarship. The program expands options for families who want to send their child to a private school but can’t afford the tuition.

Scholarships are allocated across the state in five regions. Chicago families fall within Region 1, which encompasses Cook County and contains the largest proportion of scholarships granted in the state.

Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship granting organization, awarded over 3,200 scholarships to students in Cook County in 2021 after receiving over 12,000 applications in the region.

In the past full school year, Empower only met 21% of demand statewide, with nearly 30,000 kids in line to receive scholarships. Many more students applied for scholarships from other smaller scholarship granting organizations in the tax credit program.

Tax credit scholarship program benefits thousands of Black, Hispanic students

Thousands of the children in the tax credit scholarship program are students of color. Of the students receiving scholarships through Empower Illinois in 2021, 19% identified as Black and 30% as Hispanic.

Among the students receiving scholarships from Empower in Cook County specifically, nearly 58% were Black or Hispanic.

A proven solution: school choice

School choice programs such as the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program could improve the academic declines facing Illinois and the achievement gaps between demographic groups.

Milwaukee Public Schools serves as an example. It is the largest school district in Wisconsin and more than 75% of its students are Black or Hispanic and come from low-income families.

The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program is the oldest school choice program of its kind and gives more than 28,000 Milwaukee students an average of more than $8,000 in scholarships each year to put toward tuition at a school of their family’s choice. Studies have found the program reduced racial segregation in Milwaukee while improving test scores in both private schools and traditional public schools.

The Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program is Illinois’ take on offering parents and students more flexibility in school options.

But the Invest in Kids Act is set to expire Dec. 31, 2023. If CTU and its allies succeed and lawmakers allow the program to die, thousands of Illinois students and their families would be left scrambling for ways to stay in their schools. Or they might have to leave their private schools altogether.

Lawmakers in the new year should make the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program permanent.

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