This policy report describes a model voucher bill, The Heartland Plan for Illinois, drafted by the author with assistance from several others, notably George Clowes and the Illinois Legislative Reference Bureau, in 1996-97. Opinion polls indicate that significant majorities of the American public support allowing parents to choose the schools their children attend without financial penalty. With a major U.S. Supreme Court decision on school vouchers expected in the summer of 2002, now is a good time to ask what an ideal voucher program would look like.
1. The Heartland Plan for Illinois gives communities the authority to establish a well-designed voucher program that respects local control of education.
The Heartland Plan for Illinois establishes in state law a voucher program that every community in Illinois can “opt into” by voter referendum. Among the plan’s key elements:
- Communities that choose to participate redirect to parents the tax dollars that currently flow to public schools. The redirected funding would be in the form of scholarships redeemable for tuition and fees at the schools of their choice.
- The amount of the scholarships would be based on the current per-pupil spending in the student’s district of residence. Federal, state, and local tax dollars would be bundled and “voucherized.”
- The Heartland Plan would be phased in over seven years, with kindergarten and first-grade students eligible for scholarships in the first year. Students in two additional grades become eligible each year. By the seventh year, all students would be eligible.
- Local school taxing bodies would be required to freeze their per-pupil operating tax levy during the seven-year phase-in. Thus, the added cost of tuitioning students already enrolled in private schools is absorbed by a small decrease in per-pupil spending, not by an increase in local property taxes.
- Participating schools would be free to charge more or less than the amount of the scholarships. If they charge less, parents can deposit the surplus in Education Savings Accounts to use on education expenses in later years.
- Any school may participate provided it does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, or national origin, and does not advocate unlawful behavior or teach hatred of any person or group on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, national origin, religion, or gender. This does not preclude the establishment of same-sex schools or classrooms.
- The Plan protects schools from increased regulation by stating that the preservation of private school autonomy is in the public interest, and by placing on the advocates of greater regulation the burden of establishing that the statute or regulation is necessary and does not impose any undue burden.
2. The Heartland Plan for Illinois rewards excellence and establishes accountability to parents and taxpayers.
In the United States, competition and choice are relied on to deliver the best quality computers, automobiles, food, housing, and virtually all of the other critical goods and services we need and have grown to expect. Only in the field of primary and secondary education do we doubt the ability of parents to make the right choices for their children.
The Heartland Plan empowers parents and makes schools accountable to them and to taxpayers, without increasing the bureaucracy and regulation that tend to stifle innovation. This is the only way we can ever achieve the goal of truly world-class schools for Illinois.
3. The Heartland Plan helps parents make wise choices among competing schools.
The Heartland Plan helps parents take advantage of their newfound power to choose by giving them important information they need to make wise choices among competing schools.
Reliable and meaningful information about school performance is difficult to obtain in Illinois and nationally. SAT scores—a widely used measure of high school quality—do not accurately measure achievement, and the graduating seniors who take the test may not be a representative sample of the student body.
The Heartland Plan requires every student who uses a scholarship to take exams measuring academic progress. The Curriculum-Based External Examinations (CBEEs) called for in The Heartland Plan would be developed by private companies that specialize in creating standardized tests—not the State Board of Education. Schools could choose from at least three tests. The tests would offer meaningful assessments of student academic achievement, without state interference in schools or families.
4. The Heartland Plan offers property tax relief without hikes in state taxes.
In many Illinois communities, local school property taxes are too high and unfair. Politicians have proposed to pay for property tax relief with state tax increases that are equally unfair. Such tax increases would hit families harder than businesses, and would have a more negative effect on job creation and economic growth. This is a shell-game Illinois taxpayers have seen and rejected many times before.
Competition is the answer. Competition reduces waste and lowers prices in the private sector, and there is ample evidence it would do the same if allowed to operate in education. The Heartland Plan for Illinois would require public and private schools to compete with one another for taxpayer and parent support. The resulting savings would go directly to taxpayers.
5. The Heartland Plan offers real assistance for needy students.
Our commitment to social justice requires that special attention be paid to the needs of children with learning disabilities; those from low-income homes; and those enrolled in low-spending school districts with high levels of tax effort. Under the current system, these children are trapped in the worst schools. Often, their very lives are put at risk.
Under The Heartland Plan, children from low-income homes and those with learning disabilities would receive larger scholarships. Schools that don’t satisfy parents would no longer be able to keep children from leaving to find better schools in the neighborhood. Poor parents, like most other parents today, would be empowered in their relationship with schools and with their children.
6. The Heartland Plan does not adversely affect the state’s special-education students.
Illinois students with special-education needs who currently attend private schools already qualify for special services paid for by the public school district. Under The Heartland Plan, this same cooperative arrangement could exist.
Moreover, special-education funding is currently distributed after expenses are incurred, rather than through the school aid formula. Public schools ask the state to reimburse their costs. Under The Heartland Plan, private scholarship-redeeming schools would also be able to apply for reimbursement of their expenses.
Finally, under current policy, no schools (including public schools) are required to admit or provide special services to accommodate handicapped or learning-disabled students. Instead, each school district is required to make the special services available. Often, this involves investing in special facilities or staff at one or more schools in the district, not every school. Under The Heartland Plan, the same cooperative arrangements would be made.
7. The Heartland Plan protects private schools from the expansion of regulation.
The Heartland Plan incorporates language to protect schools—even those that do not participate in the voucher program—from increased regulation.
The Plan states clearly that the preservation of private school autonomy is in the public interest. It adds “teeth” to that statement by placing on the advocates of greater regulation the burden of establishing that a proposed new statute or regulation is necessary and does not impose any undue burden on private schools, including scholarship-redeeming private schools.
Enactment of this legislation would immeasurably strengthen the standing of parents, churches, and civic organizations: the coalition that currently fights to preserve the independence of private schools in Illinois. Conversely, the standing of teacher unions and government school administrators—the interest groups most responsible for the imposition of regulations and mandates on schools—would be sharply reduced. Under The Heartland Plan, passage of new regulations on private schools will become more difficult over time.
Based on Heartland Policy Study #98, “The Heartland Plan for Illinois: Model School Voucher Legislation,” by Joseph L. Bast. Copies are available from The Heartland Institute for $10 each.
Copyright May 2002 The Heartland Institute. Nothing in this Executive Summary should be construed as reflecting the views of The Heartland Institute, nor as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation. Permission is hereby given to reprint or quote from this Executive Summary; please send tearsheets to The Heartland Institute, 19 South LaSalle Street #903, Chicago, Illinois 60603. Questions? Call us at 312/377-4000 or visit our Web site at www.heartland.org.