The Policy Shop: Union dollars vs. student futures

The Policy Shop: Union dollars vs. student futures

This edition of The Policy Shop is by policy analyst Hannah Schmid.

The Illinois General Assembly is back in Springfield, and so are low-income students who are among the nearly 10,000 Invest in Kids scholarship recipients. They are at the Statehouse to remind lawmakers there are real kids with futures at stake.

But the teachers unions are there, too. They are liberally employing both carrots and sticks in their battle against those disadvantaged students.

The carrots: Since June, teachers unions have funneled nearly $1.5 million to state lawmakers’ campaign coffers. The grand total since 2010 is over $21.5 million worth of influence they’ve bought with sitting lawmakers.

They succeeded in killing Invest in Kids by the end of the spring legislative session, which ended in May. They dumped that nearly $1.5 million into lawmaker campaigns afterwards as they worked to make sure it stayed dead through the veto session, which ends Nov. 9.

The sticks: Teachers unions don’t just reward their friends and those they want to be their friends, they also threaten.

Right now, state lawmakers are collecting signatures on nominating petitions so they can again seek their legislative seats. They must file those petitions by Dec. 4. The Invest in Kids vote or its demise will come by Nov. 9, when veto session ends.

Teachers unions are threatening Democratic lawmakers who don’t fall in line. The lawmakers will find themselves facing primary election opponents if they vote for Invest in Kids. Plenty of time between Nov. 9 and Dec. 4 to find an opponent.

Motivation: Why would teachers unions work so hard against the best interests of low-income students? These are kids who often were not thriving in their public schools. They were bullied, neglected, crowded or failed in their public schools. Private school provides an alternative that should be seen as a public school partner, especially because the government keeps tax revenue generated for that student’s education: up to $3,000 per kid, one study found a decade ago.

When well-off parents find public schools are failing their children, they often send them to private schools. That’s what Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates did when her son couldn’t find the athletics or academics he needed in the Chicago Public Schools his mom’s union members staff. That’s what the main lobbyist for the Illinois Education Association, Sean Denney, chose for his children in Springfield.

Both of those fierce opponents of school choice for low-income parents are high-income parents themselves who value private school educations. They choose private schools for those they love the most, so why deny the choice to other parents just because those parents don’t make six-figures?

Competition: Teachers unions publicly claim their fight against Invest in Kids is because it takes money away from public schools, but that’s just not so. Public schools have gained nearly $2 billion in extra state funding since Invest in Kids started. Tax credits offered for scholarship donations meant Illinois gave up about $57 million last year in potential revenue.

But remember how public schools can save when they get money for a child they don’t have to educate? Illinois gives up $5,900 in tax credits per Invest in Kids student, yet the state would need to spend nearly $18,000 to educate that child in a public school. That means Illinois saves nearly $12,100 per Invest in Kids scholarship recipient.

So, it’s not about public school funding. It’s really about teachers unions seeing private schools as competition in a race the unions are losing.

It’s academic: The Illinois Report Card just came out. Public education leaders were seeing it as a win that they gained back some of the large academic losses inflicted by pandemic school closures. But the 2023 numbers are not good: only 35% of third through eighth graders can read at grade level, 27% can do math. For high school juniors, 32% were proficient at reading on the SAT, 27% could do math.

That means public education is not doing its job for about two of every three students. It’s even worse if you are from a disadvantaged family in Chicago: about 1 in 5 low-income elementary students tested can read, 1 in 10 do math in Chicago Public Schools. For high school, reading rates were worse and math proficiency slightly better.

Again, these are the schools Davis Gates won’t send her own son to.

Families deserve choices about their children’s educations, whether they struggle to pay their bills or make nearly $300,000 as union bosses. Invest in Kids can make that choice possible for those struggling families, if state lawmakers stand up for kids and face down teachers union bullies.

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