Illinois Senate Approves Test Voucher Program for Chicago

Published April 1, 2010

The Illinois Senate has approved private school vouchers for up to 22,000 Chicago students from low-performing public schools.

The measure represents a big win for school choice proponents, especially after the recent move by Congress to strip funding from a popular voucher program in Washington, DC. The Illinois bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. James Meeks (D), is a Baptist minister and formerly union-backed legislator serving Chicago’s South Side.

“Six to nine months ago, people would have said there was zero chance of advancing school-choice legislation out of either chamber in Illinois,” said Collin Hitt, director of education policy at the Illinois Policy Institute. “The fact that it did pass the Senate proves that anything is possible.”

Scaled Down from Statewide Plan

Originally Senate Bill 2494 would have offered vouchers statewide and for all grade levels. Meeks earlier this year agreed to narrow the legislation’s scope to cover approximately 22,000 elementary school students in Chicago’s public schools under a pilot program. The legislation provides for the program to expand statewide in 2014 if the state board of education delivers the state General Assembly a positive report.

Each participating student would receive a voucher for up to $6,000, which is the minimum amount of money the state requires districts to spend on each child. The program would begin in fall 2011.

The bill passed the state Senate on a 33-20 vote March 25 over significant opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which argues vouchers would siphon money and talent from already struggling schools. Meeks has said he’s not trying to enfeeble public schools but instead strengthen them by giving kids more options.

“[Vouchers] lead to quality and low costs through competition,” agreed Jeff Reed, the state program and government relations director at the Indianapolis-based Foundation for Educational Choice. He emphasized the high satisfaction ratings parents and students give when allowed to choose among different education options.

Bipartisan Support

Twenty Republican and 13 Democrat senators voted for the bill to reach the 30 votes required, with a narrow three-vote margin, while 18 Democrats and two Republicans voted against the bill.

The legislation faces an uncertain fate in the state House and would require Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s signature. Quinn has said he opposes voucher programs.

Meeks’s office said it is impossible to predict when the House will vote on the bill, but that lawmakers there have shown significant interest.
“[Sen. Meeks] has been approached by several House Democrats who are interested in working the bill over in the other chamber, because this is targeted to reach kids in schools that are failing,” said Jayde Huebner, spokesman for the Illinois Senate Democrats. “Whether or not these colleagues agree with the approach, most of them agree with that end goal.”

‘Shake Up the Established Order’

Meeks, a former vouchers opponent who returned CTU campaign donations after introducing this legislation in 2009, began exploring vouchers and other education alternatives after a Chicago student was brutally murdered in September.

“For the first time, I am exploring the idea of vouchers and charter schools to help facilitate choice and enhance academic performance,” he wrote in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial shortly after the incident. “Since the will to change the system is nonexistent, we should allow students the flexibility to attend schools outside their district.”

Fewer than 20 percent of Chicago’s public-school students tested “proficient” in 2007 on math or reading in both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels, according to the most recent numbers available from the National Center for Education Statistics. Chicago students performed even more poorly in the years previous.
“School vouchers are attractive to supporters for the same reason they’re disquieting to others,” Hitt said. “They shake up the established order.”

Companion Illinois Reform Bills

Sen. Meeks has sponsored several companion bills to his legislation authorizing vouchers for Chicago public schools, including a measure (SB 2495) to lift Illinois’s cap on charter schools. That bill currently awaits assignment to the Senate’s voting calendar.

The state Senate also approved an amendment to a bill (SB 3522) that would permit Chicago public school teachers to live outside city limits.

Meeks introduced an open-enrollment bill (SB 2496) that would allow any Illinois student to attend any public school without regard to residency and without being charged tuition, as well as a bill removing from the Chicago mayor’s office the power to appoint school board members. If passed, SB 2500 would make the seven-member Chicago Board of Education an elected public body.

The Chicago city school board serves more than 435,000 students in more than 600 schools.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed legislation last summer doubling the state’s limit on charter schools to 120, with 45 new charters allotted to Chicago. The legislation, as with similar initiatives in several states, was intended to enhance Illinois’ bid for part of $4 billion in federal Race to the Top education grants.

Illinois currently has 77 charter schools across the state, with most clustered in Chicago.

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, D.C.