School Choice Finally on the Agenda in Illinois

The move for school choice is not only growing in Illinois in general but in Chicago in particular as politicians and parents both see the downward spiral of the public education system picking up speed.

With the costs of public education soaring but neither the rates of graduation nor proficiency growing accordingly, parents are desperate to find a way for their children to gain a better education.

The state is pumping millions upon millions into the bottomless pit of education and taxes are edging higher every year to support the spending habit. As an example, Illinois school district U46 (west of Chicago in the Elgin area) has $600 million in bond debt and this is just one of the nearly 700 school districts in Illinois.

So, as the system founders, many experiments have blossomed. We all know that charter schools have grown rapidly in the Chicago area, but there are other schools such as Leo Catholic High School in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood that are serving as perfect examples of school choice. Leo is a prime example of a private high school that is a wildly successful example of education at its finest.

The school is not fully supported financially by the city’s Catholic system but has since 1926 served students as an independent high school operating in what is now one of the city’s most depressed neighborhoods. The school started back when Auburn Gresham was a heavily Irish-Catholic part of the city but now serves an entirely African American student body. (Edit to note: The Archdiocese of Chicago does support Leo and has provided over $2M in direct, financial operating support for the school between 2009 and 2015, but doesn’t pay all the school’s expenses as it does the schools it has direct control over.)

The school has been such a success that for the last six years 100% of its students have been accepted into a college or university and 96 percent have gone on to pursue higher education.

This great school doesn’t just serve the local area but draws students from 26 area codes teaching kids that “Deeds Not Words” is the way to success.

Leo is a great example of school choice, but not the only one helping Illinois students to a better education.

Of course, charter schools have brought heated debate all across the city as entrenched union operatives oppose them while students and parents scramble to apply and be accepted to the charter school of their choice.

Teachers unions hate these school choice efforts because unions aren’t interested in education. After all, no matter what the field, a union’s job isn’t to advocate for a better product. A union’s only goal is to “get” more for the workers they represent. In education, that means that the union is only interested in raiding the public treasury, engorging teacher salaries and pension benefits, and making it nearly impossible to fire failing teachers all quite despite what it might do to the “product” of educating our kids. The simple fact is, unions care about union rules, not kids. This is one of the reasons that even Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt was against public employee unions and why such organizations weren’t even legal until 1959.

Still, charter schools and private schools aren’t the only efforts floating around out there and these efforts are not only supported by conservatives and Republicans. In fact, a bipartisan group called “Illinois Kids Campaign” has several new education bills that they hope to introduce in the coming weeks all aimed at a bipartisan solution to Illinois’ failing education system.

With the theme of “every child deserves a quality education,” the Illinois Kids Campaign is floating the idea of giving tax credits to parents to help them find better schools as well as helping teachers with a tax credit to help them pay for supplies for their classes.

The group’s four basic goals are as follows:

  • A tax credit to reimburse teachers for their out-of-pocket classroom expenses.
  • In tough budgetary times, music, arts, and sports programs are the first to be cut. Provide funding to ensure these critical programs continue.
  • Increase donations across the state to nonprofit scholarship organizations to provide scholarships to students to attend K through 12th grade, public and private schools.
  • Funding to help schools ensure that students are safe and can learn in well-maintained buildings.

Only just today the group put out a Tweet to urge lawmakers to action:

One somewhat controversial idea the coalition has is to attempt to get their policy ideas penciled into the state budget, but the group is also pursuing several stand alone bills to be introduced in the coming months.

Suffice to say that there are a lot of moves and counter moves in education in Illinois and now with a governor who has made school choice a major focus of both his personal life of activism as well as a campaign issue, the time seems just right for a push for school choice in the Land of Lincoln. It is a push that is long over due.

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