The Policy Shop: Illinois’ last stand for school choice

The Policy Shop: Illinois’ last stand for school choice

Illinois schoolchildren did a little better this past school year, but they are still behind where they were before the pandemic hit and put them out of their classrooms for large blocks of time.

It’s interesting timing as Illinois state lawmakers are showing too little interest in keeping the one thing that worked during the pandemic: school choice.

Scores for public schools were just released and showed only 35% of students in grades 3 through 8 could read at grade level in 2023, according to the Illinois Report Card. Only 27% met proficiency in math.

That is 3 percentage points lower in reading and 5 points lower in math than before the pandemic.

High school juniors taking the SAT posted similar proficiency: 32% could read and 27% do math at grade level.

Illinois Superintendent of Education Tony Sanders said the state has a “significant distance to travel” toward recovery after pandemic-era school closures caused record-low proficiency rates statewide.

Really? You mean Illinois shouldn’t be satisfied when roughly 2 of every 3 students are behind?

The state’s education leaders were spinning the scores as “strong progress” because both elementary reading and math increased from the prior year. They also celebrated the high school graduation rate, which sits at 87.6% for the class of 2023 – the highest it has been in 13 years.

But look back a year at when the graduating class of 2023 were tested as juniors. Just 30% met grade-level standards in reading and 29% in math when they took the state-required SAT in spring 2022.

So, our record graduation rates are basically sending 7 of every 10 young adults out into the world ill-prepared for the demands they will face.

How long will it take for college admissions officers and hiring managers to start saying: “Oh. That’s an Illinois high school diploma. Maybe we should take the Massachusetts grad.”

Celia Bermudez understands exactly what it means when a public school does not prepare a teen for college. It happened to her daughter.

“When she went to college she called me and she said, ‘Mom, it’s too hard for me. I have classmates who know things. They were prepared for college, and I’m not.’ She had great grades and was top three in her class, but this did not prepare her for college.”

Bermudez vowed her youngest three children would not face college unprepared, so she enrolled them in private school thanks to a scholarship for low-income families, Illinois’ Invest in Kids program. The program is set to end at the close of 2023, and state lawmakers can only save it Nov. 7-9 during their final three days in Springfield.

“We cannot keep them in this school without the scholarship. And if my kids go to the public school, they will not be prepared for college and maybe they cannot finish their careers,” Bermudez said.

While public schools remained closed during the pandemic – for 17 months in the case of Chicago, thanks to Chicago Teachers Union demands – private schools reopened under their own local safety protocols rather than statewide mandates. Public school enrollment dropped 1.27 million nationwide as parents sought options to mask mandates and remote learning.

Private schools advanced as public schools struggled, with Chicago still seeing a stark difference between public and private school achievement. In Chicago Public Schools, only 20% of elementary students scored proficient in reading compared to 72% in the Archdiocese of Chicago schools on their readiness assessment.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates picked a parochial high school for her own son so he could pursue athletics and academics unavailable at his public school. Illinois Education Association chief lobbyist Sean Denney failed to shackle private schools with the same statewide pandemic mandates public schools followed, yet sends his children to a parochial school in Springfield.

Both union leaders are working to kill the private school option for over 9,600 low-income and mostly minority families. So far, they are winning.

State lawmakers return Nov. 7-9 to Springfield. It is the last chance to stop Invest in Kids from expiring at the end of 2023. They would be acting with the approval of voters by a 3 to 1 margin.

But they would be risking the ire of teachers unions who resent private school competition and have invested nearly $20 million in 4 of 5 sitting lawmakers so they can get what they want.

Low-income kids, or high-income union bosses? Stay tuned.

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