Illinois House Votes Down Voucher Bill

Published May 5, 2010

The Illinois House of Representatives has defeated a bill to establish a pilot voucher program for students in Chicago’s worst public schools.

The House voted 66-48 against SB 2494 by Sen. James Meeks, a Southside Chicago Democrat and pastor of the city’s largest Baptist congregation, on May 5. The bill needed 60 votes to pass.

SB 2494 would have provided vouchers of up to $4,000 to as many as 30,000 elementary school students in the bottom 10 percent of Chicago’s public schools. The students could have used the vouchers to transfer to a private or parochial school of their choice. The state Senate passed the bill last month.

Emotional Debate

Numerous Democrats and Republicans urged their colleagues to support the bill.

“I’m pleading with you; I’m begging you,” said Rep. Ken Dunkin (D-Chicago) during Wednesday’s emotional floor debate. “Help me help kids in my district.”

Rep. Suzie Bassi (R-Palatine) said she has always opposed vouchers but supported SB 2494.

“This bill is about kids. Kids who can’t read and who cannot do basic math. Kids who don’t have a decent school environment,” Bassi said in an impassioned, tearful speech. “They need to have a chance to be productive members of society. And history has shown these kids will fail if they stay in these schools.”

“We’ve already failed a full generation while we’ve been down here,” Bassi said. “I ask you to search your souls … and give these kids a chance.”

‘Afraid of One Little Change’

Rep. Kevin Joyce, another Southside Democrat who shares many of Meeks’ constituents, sponsored the bill in the House. Joyce expressed his disappointment after the vote.

“I’ve lost bills before. That’s just part of life,” Joyce told the Chicago Sun-Times. “But these kids had a great opportunity with some really strong leadership. Today, those kids lost out because the people that are a part of that system are afraid of one little change: giving kids an opportunity to go to a better school.”

State teachers unions strongly opposed the bill. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) had previously said he opposes school choice.

Republicans Switched

Legislators had debated a series of amendments to the bill on Tuesday and Wednesday, with several Republicans switching from “yes” to “no” and Democrats switching from “no” to “yes.” Although House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) had pledged to put 30 votes on the bill, by the day of the vote Madigan had lined up only 22 Democrats in support.

Rep. Roger Eddy (R-Hutsonville), a school superintendent downstate, led the opposition to the bill within the Republican caucus. Other GOP opponents included Rep. Sandy Pihos (R-Glen Ellyn), Rep. Jil Tracy (R-Quincy), Rep. Jim Sacia (R-Freeport), and Rep. Randy Ramey (R-West Chicago).

According to one bill supporter who worked closely with the minority, four House Republicans who originally pledged to vote yes switched to no at the last moment when it was clear the bill would fall well short of the necessary 60 votes. Only 25 of 48 Republicans supported the bill.

Backers Plan Next Moves

Joyce kept the House version of SB 2494—which was filed at various times as House Amendment 1, 2 and 3—on the legislative dock through a parliamentary maneuver to postpone final action. He told reporters he may try to revive it after the November elections.

Jeff Reed, who coordinates state outreach efforts for the Foundation for Educational Choice, said, “Everybody who came out and stuck their necks out in support of this bill is a hero.”

Reed says although the vote was a setback for vouchers in Illinois, the legislative effort may serve as a model “for putting kids first and the system second.” Reed pointed to Meeks’ aggressive campaign to move public opinion in favor of school choice as something to emulate.

“Pouring resources into reducing class size and generally putting more money into the system doesn’t work,” Reed said. “In Chicago, kids are getting beaten and murdered. Among Republicans and Democrats, those who opposed this bill were thinking first about the system, not the students. People need to understand that.”

‘Difficult Year’ for Choice

Greg Forster, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice, said the bill’s defeat, while disappointing, should not discourage reformers.

“Every movement worth fighting for has both victories and defeats,” Forster said. “The battle to take the education system back from the unions is no different. We had a lot more victories than defeats from 2005 to 2008. Last year and this year have been more difficult because of cyclical political shifts that made the unions more powerful.”

But Forster predicts a shift away from teachers union power. “Their cycles on top are getting shorter and their cycles on the bottom are getting longer. This fall they’re going to lose a lot of their toadies in state legislatures across the country,” he said.

“Moreover, people on the political left are more and more following the lead of folks like Sen. Meeks and walking off the union plantation,” Forster added.

“I suspect that in 2011 people are going to be stunned at how well vouchers do,” he said.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.