Whether You Call Them 'Vouchers' or Not, It's Time to Ask Some Tough Questions in Illinois

Recently, the negatively-charged term “voucher” has been morphing into the more positive term “scholarship program.” In the case of my home state of Illinois, before the public could get used to the switch, “scholarship programs” stealthily swooped through our state legislature. Designed to distribute large amounts of public funds for students to attend private schools, these programs were packaged tightly with the long-debated and publicly-vetted equitable education legislation that Illinois schoolchildren have desperately needed for decades. According to WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, a voucher system is where a portion of tax dollars goes into a general fund that the state controls and uses to issue vouchers to qualifying families for tuition payments to private or parochial schools. In a tax credit scholarship program, a taxpayer or business can donate up to $1 million a year to a nonprofit organization that then distributes the money as a scholarship for families to use as tuition. The donor can pick the school to which this money goes, and 75 percent of the donation is issued to the donor as tax credits. In many areas of the country, such programs serve students in poverty. In Florida, the nation’s leader in this, the programs serve around 100,000, and the average salary of families whose children are on scholarship is around $24,000. But in Illinois, students can be on scholarships even if they aren’t in poverty. According to the new law, students are eligible for scholarships if their family earns less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level—equating to around $73,000 for a family of four. This means that poor, working class and middle class families will have access to the scholarship program. It raises the question: Who is this program meant to serve, and should tax dollars be used to support middle income families’ use of private schools? Recent research is conflicting at best on whether student achievement improves for scholarship recipients. In July, the Brookings Institute reported that in Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana, and Washington, D.C., student achievement for scholarship recipients declined significantly in math and slightly in reading for students who transferred from public schools to private schools within the first three years of attending private schools. However, according to NPR, the achievement decline disappears if the student stayed in the school for longer than four years.

Wait, Wait, There's More

The problem with this information is that many students in the study did not remain in the private school system for more than four years. And in Illinois, there is a clause that can potentially end scholarship programs after five years. Several Illinois democratic governor hopefuls including J.B. Pritzker, Chris Kennedy, Ameya Pawar, and Daniel Biss have all said they are against vouchers and hope to act against this provision in the bill if elected to office. Need time to digest all of this information? Forget it. Instead of taking their time, publicly vetting the bill and looking at educational research to help make decisions as legislators did on the equity portion of the bill, the scholarship program was part of the compromise rammed through at the last second. And although it stands to initially affect just 6,000 students, it is one small step in authorizing the use of public funds for private education—a step that President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hope to expand throughout our nation. For now, the scholarship programs are here to stay. But one question that should be on the minds of private and religious school leaders is how to deal with readiness. Students on the scholarship programs are required to take the same standardized assessments as their public school peers such as the PARCC and SAT exams. Are private and religious schools ready to offer more services to ensure this research-proven backslide for transfer students doesn’t happen? What is their plan to counteract the student achievement decline that has become the norm for students transferring from public to private schools? As private and religious school leaders take incoming students on scholarship vouchers, we need to be thoughtful about helping all students achieve. As leaders both nationally and locally decide whether or not to pass legislation in favor of expanding school choice through scholarship programs, I urge them to take the time that Illinois legislators didn’t to vet the program publicly and take a hard look at the research on existing programs. Families interested in the program should research their school choices well and ask the hard questions about the school’s preparedness to support students knowing that an academic achievement slide has been proven to occur.
Gina Caneva
Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She has her M.Ed in Literacy, Language, and Culture from the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes extensively on education topics.

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