Ep. 64: Why it’s time for Illinois to embrace school choice

Ep. 64: Why it’s time for Illinois to embrace school choice

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced many Illinois parents to the concept and practice of school choice. What is school choice and why has it become such a politicized issue? Nathan Hoffman, director of state policy and legislative strategy for the American Federation for Children, joins us to discuss the benefits of school choice and why Illinois should extend Invest in Kids, a state tax-credit and school-choice scholarship program.

This week’s Policy Shop is by Hilary Gowins, senior vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute and Nathan Hoffman, director of state policy and legislative strategy at the American Federation for Children.

Pandemic school closures put a spotlight on education, as parents struggled to make e-learning work or looked for alternatives to public school. That scramble introduced many people to the concept of school choice – a public policy philosophy that gives students educational options instead of restricting them to whatever public school is in their ZIP code.

Why does choice matter? Because no two kids learn the same. Some learn better in a large public-school setting. Others thrive in a smaller setting – or in a STEM program, or fine arts magnet school … you get the idea.

Illinoisans like school choice: In Illinois, more than 60% of voters support school choice, including 66% of Democratic voters, 71% of Black voters, and 81% of Latino voters. The opposition persists with scare tactics and rhetoric that seeks to villainize beneficiaries and advocates of the program.

Illinois is home to a successful school choice pilot program. Here’s how it works: The Invest in Kids Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which passed in 2017, allows individuals and corporations to donate money for private school scholarships and receive a tax credit of 75 cents for every $1 donated. Scholarship money is awarded to families whose income does not exceed 300% of the federal poverty level: a family of four earning $73,800 or less would qualify. And it has been working well. Empower Illinois reported the average annual household income of participants is $38,000, and 49% of participating students are Black or Hispanic. These households otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford private school tuition but want their children to be able to attend school that best fit their needs. With 26,000 families on the waiting list, it seems there is plenty of demand for the program.

Scholarships are good for students: Research by the Urban Institute shows tax credit scholarships raise high school graduation rates, college enrollment and college attainment of recipients — mostly children from low-income households. In Florida, for example, scholarship recipients were 12% more likely to go to college. Those who had received a scholarship from grades eight to 10 were two percentage points more likely to graduate college.

Eighty-nine percent of students at Chicago Public Schools are minorities – mostly Black and Hispanic – and the public school system is failing them. Seventy-five percent of students at the lowest-performing public elementary schools in Chicago failed to meet standards on state exams. More than 20% of these students scored in the lowest category in reading, meaning they had a difficult time determining the main idea of a persuasive essay or the plot of a short story.

And research has shown how education and jobs improve health outcomes and reduce crime. Even before the pandemic, states with higher unemployment rates had higher crime rates – both in terms of higher homicide rates and higher property crime rates, according to data from the FBI.

How choice changes lives: Jennifer Rodriguez and her daughter, Teresa, of Joliet, Illinois, know the disruption and chaos losing the scholarships can cause. Invest in Kids started when Teresa was a freshman at Joliet Catholic. “Then she received it sophomore year, but junior year she did not receive it,” Rodriguez said. “That was a rough year. I was doing whatever I could to make it work, but there were a couple of times where I really did fall behind making the payments. I had received an email stating that if I didn’t get caught up that she possibly wouldn’t be able to return.”

A counselor helped find money, plus her tax return let her pay off the tuition debt. But the trouble wasn’t over. “She was waitlisted her senior year. I debated pulling her out of school for senior year. Being on the scholarship waitlist was scary because I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again,’” Rodriguez said.

“Luckily she did get it for senior year also, so that’s been a godsend. I pretty much cried because that was just a big relief off my shoulders, knowing that I wouldn’t be scrambling and trying to make ends meet to give her this opportunity.”

Senate Bill 3618House Bill 5461 and House Bill 5391 would expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students and families. They were introduced by state Sen. Antonio Muñoz, D-Chicago, state Rep. Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar, D-Chicago, and Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside.

Invest in Kids, Illinois' tax credit scholarship program for low-income kids, is on the chopping block. Will the state make it permanent or kill it at the end of 2023?

Unions v. parents: Illinois Families for Public Schools is urging parents to call lawmakers and allow the Invest in Kids Tax Credit Scholarship program to expire, ending scholarships that have helped at least 37,000 students in Illinois.

But hundreds of parents with the opposite perspective recently traveled to Springfield to tell lawmakers to make the tax credit scholarship program permanent. They have shared how their children struggled in public school but have thrived in private schools they could not have afforded without the program.

Pritzker’s pivot: Unions are sweating because Gov. J.B. Pritzker did an about-face on the program, saying he supports school choice now. As education reform advocate Corey DeAngelis writes in The Wall Street Journal, Pritzker “said that his budgets ‘have ultimately included the relatively small Invest in Kids Scholarship Program’ because he had ‘assurance from the advocates’ that they would ‘support increased public school funding.’ His support may be measured and conditional, but explicit support for school choice is a major shift for Mr. Pritzker.”

The end? Invest in Kids is facing its biggest legislative challenge yet as the program is set to statutorily sunset on Dec. 31, 2023, unless the General Assembly takes action to save the program. The program enjoys significant bipartisan support from legislators, and even PritzkerMomentum is certainly on the side of families, but it will be important that more voices join the call to “Remove the Sunset” and allow families to continue benefiting from a program that has far exceeded its expectations.

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