The Policy Shop: Illinois backslides on education

The Policy Shop: Illinois backslides on education

This edition of The Policy Shop is by Mailee Smith, senior director of labor policy and staff attorney.

The Illinois General Assembly has departed Springfield to go eat turkey. Most of them should be eating crow.

On Nov. 9 they made Illinois the only state in the nation to roll back school choice.

State lawmakers listened to teachers unions’ cash and threats rather than the pleas and needs of over 9,600 disadvantaged students trying to stay in private schools. Invest in Kids ends this year, thanks to some tortured logic and the complicity of Illinois House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

Political casualties. Welch never called either of the bills that would have saved the school choice program, claiming he needed 71 Democrats on board to meet a standard he made up. He totally ignored the 40 House Republicans who publicly pledged their support for the bill.

Pritzker gave so many mixed signals on the program that his view became white noise. All he needed to do if he cared about those 9,600 kids would be to pick up the phone and tell Welch to get it passed.

And it was all because teachers unions saw the program as a threat to their monopoly on education. They poured money and lobbying power into killing the program “for good,” as the Chicago Teachers Union phrased it.

Cha-ching. Teachers unions funneled nearly $1.5 million into current lawmakers’ political committees between June 1 and the end of October 2023, according to records with the Illinois State Board of Elections. That’s a lot of money for unions to spend to kill a relatively small program for the state.

Most of that came from the National Education Association, which contributed $1.1 million since June 1. The Chicago Teachers Union, which came under fire earlier this year for its use of member dues for political purposes, contributed at least $40,500 to lawmakers since June 1.

Overall, current lawmakers have received more than $21.5 million from teachers unions since Jan. 1, 2010.

Apparently money – and reelection with the help of teachers unions – is more important than kids’ needs. Campaign cash was handed to incumbents and threats of primary opponents were made for any Democrats breaking ranks and supporting Invest in Kids.

Fear factor. So what’s next for school choice in Illinois? Supporters pledged to continue the fight.

“So we’re gonna continue to push for this,” said state Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford. “We’ll start again in January. And we’ll try to get this back on track because I think it’s a program that’s clearly helped thousands of children succeed and become all that they were meant to be.”

Lawmakers may be able to get something even better than Invest in Kids after the Illinois General Assembly returns in mid-January. Lawmakers will already have filed their nominating petitions Dec. 4 and be clear of teachers unions’ threats that lawmakers would face primary election opponents for failing to side with the unions. Maybe lawmakers will again be focused on those they should really fear – voters.

June poll found voters supported the program 3 to 1, with at least 60% support from each main political party. Another poll found 71% of Black voters and 81% of Hispanic voters backed it. Still another poll – one by a research firm popular among Democrats – showed all voters, but especially minority and low-income voters, strongly supported the program.

Teachers unions publicly claimed their opposition was because the program took away from public education, but that was just wrong. Illinois added nearly $2 billion for public education since Invest in Kids started. Plus, the scholarship program saved the state and school districts money. The revenue lost to the state through the tax credit doesn’t come near the amount schools would have spent, saving over $12,000 per recipient when government doesn’t have to spend an average of $18,000 to educate each child. That’s nearly $117 million a year in savings.

This was a good program for low-income families, for taxpayers and for education overall in Illinois. And while it met the needs of 9,656 students who received scholarships, as of March there were already over 24,000 on the waiting list for this school year.

Invest in Kids was not coming close to meeting the demand. Maybe Illinois can figure out how to let all its children choose to attend schools that best fit their needs.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!