Vallas: All Illinois parents deserve school choice because it works

Vallas: All Illinois parents deserve school choice because it works

Private education excels and school choice help students across race and income demographics. So why are teachers unions working against parents having choices and students excelling?

It’s time to embrace parental choice and expand access to quality school options in Chicago and Illinois.

And those choices should not just be for high-income teachers union presidents and lobbyists, but for all parents regardless of income.

Private school students outperform their public-school counterparts. This is true across student populations and among low-income and minority students, both nationwide and in Illinois.

Take the findings of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics in their “Nation’s Report Card” – an analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress – which found Catholic schools consistently outperformed public schools in almost all categories. The data was so compelling, the Manhattan Institute wrote, “If Catholic schools were a state, they would be the highest performing in the nation on all four NAEP tests.”

The Manhattan Institute analysis also found Black, Hispanic and low-income students in Catholic schools outperformed their peers in traditional and public charter schools. Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates and Illinois Education Association chief lobbyist Sean Denney both chose parochial schools for their children but were able to kill Invest in Kids private-school scholarships for nearly 10,000 low-income children.

Four Illinois parochial schools previously said they are closing thanks to the loss of the scholarships, and a fifth just lost its fight to remain open.

The data is even more compelling for school choice when considering the ways the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the vulnerabilities of the traditional public school system. While public school districts were ill-prepared to handle crises and struggled to adapt and reopen safely for in-person instruction, parochial and other private schools innovated and adapted in real time, even during the emergency.

The results from the NAEP assessment showed U.S. Catholic schools didn’t lose significant academic ground during the pandemic and outperformed public schools in all categories. The Nation’s Report Card data showed Catholic schools “near the top in learning outcomes for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, demonstrating the system’s commitment to underprivileged students.”

The difference: they were unburdened by centralized bureaucracy, constant union interference and collective bargaining agreements that prioritize teachers’ wants over students’ needs.

Findings from Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic schools showed similar results – their students defied the national trend of pandemic-related stagnation and decline in academics. Not only did archdiocese students meet academic expectations by staying on track with their learning, but an overwhelming number of them exceeded learning goals set out by the system’s annual i-Ready assessment exam.

The success of school choice is a story of unique, individualized learning experiences, not one of family wealth or selection bias.

Low-income students in Illinois who received scholarships from the Invest in Kids scholarship program were proficient in reading and math at a higher rate in nearly every grade compared to low-income, public-school students in Illinois, according to data release by the state. High school students receiving the scholarship beat the state average for all public high school students in reading.

These findings should serve as a catalyst for expanding school choice. But that’s not happening in Illinois – yet.

Here, teachers union leadership is determined to eradicate all private school and public school competition. The Chicago Teachers Union forced Chicago Public Schools to cap the number of public charter schools and their demands for current contract negotiations include more limits and damage to charter schools. They successfully pushed to end the Invest in Kids Tax Scholarship Program, Illinois’ only school choice program.

Teachers unions perpetuate the false narrative that public schools lose money when a student receives a private-school scholarship. But taxpayers often save money when students utilized the scholarship program because the scholarship amounts are typically lower than the total taxpayer support required to educate a student in a district school. The institute estimated for every public school student who transferred to a private school, the state saved a net average of $12,100.

If the state fails to restore the scholarship program, Chicago could take unilateral action to offer school choice on its own. The city could dedicate the school district’s annual share of tax increment financing surplus revenues to finance private school scholarships. The surplus would mean the district and city do not lose money because of the tax increment financing property tax diversion because property tax rates simply rise so property tax collections will meet the levy requests.

The district could also invite state-accredited private schools to become contract schools. School districts historically have contracted with private schools for an array of full-time as well as part-time services. This includes private special education providers and alternative schools for students who have been expelled. Students attending these schools would be counted for purposes of determining the level of general state aid as well as other enrollment-driven funding programs.

Denying poor families, disproportionately members of minority communities, access to quality schools and effectively denying them education during the pandemic adds to the list of harms these communities have historically suffered. It’s clear no amount of funding will correct it.

It’s time to rejoin the growing number of states, including 9 of the 12 Midwestern states, in offering all families quality school choices.

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