Revitalizing Public Education in Illinois

Published March 24, 1995

There is no more important issue today than the education of our children. Who could possibly disagree that our society–crippled by gang violence, teen pregnancy, and welfare dependency– would experience a Renaissance if every child received a quality education?

Twenty years of research affirms the close relationship between a child’s education level and his propensity to engage in crime, be dependent on welfare, use drugs, and live in poverty. It is clear that the surest and most comprehensive way to improve the quality of life in Illinois is to properly educate all of our children. It is equally clear that we have no time to lose.

The dropout rate for the Chicago Public Schools is over 50 percent, and in some schools it is as high as 70 percent. Statewide the dropout rate is lower–about 20 percent–but still unacceptably high. Even those who graduate are often unprepared for college and must enroll in “remedial” courses or not attend college at all. Graduates from Illinois’s best public high schools are ill- prepared to compete with students from other states and countries for admission to the nation’s top universities.

How do we go about revitalizing public education in Illinois? Two steps are necessary.

First, we must redefine public education. Public education is about teaching the members of a community: its children, teenagers, and adults. It’s about striving to provide the best possible education for the greatest number of students. Schools need not be owned and operated by the government to provide this public service; government intervention in education is only a means to achieving public education, not an end in itself. In many communities, private and church- affiliated schools provide most of the “public” education taking place.

Second, we must wrest control and responsibility in education away from administrators, bureaucrats, and teachers unions, and return it to parents, families, and communities. Why? Because parents care more about their children than anyone else does. Because parental involvement in a child’s education follows parental empowerment. And because, over time, government bureaucracies become top-heavy, wasteful, and unaccountable to parents.

In the past six months I have traveled throughout Illinois to meet with business leaders, community activists, educators, parents, and policymakers–thoughtful individuals representing nearly every political viewpoint, racial and ethnic group, and economic background. I asked each of them: Who should decide where a child attends school? I have yet to meet a single individual in this state who answered anything other than “the parent.”

But public policy in Illinois doesn’t respect the right of parents to choose schools for their children. As it stands now, only parents who can afford to pay private school tuition and local property taxes, or who can afford to relocate to school districts with high-quality schools, have a choice. In effect, Illinois punishes parents who decide for themselves what schools their children attend.

The way to return power to parents and local communities is through school choice: giving tax dollars to parents in the form of a scholarship or “voucher” and allowing them to purchase tuition at the schools of their choice, whether government-run or privately supported. Other states have implemented educational choice programs, and legislation is pending in Illinois to fund a pilot choice program in Chicago.

Redefining public education and empowering parents must start immediately. The injustice of the present arrangement cries out for change. Parents who can’t afford to pay twice for their children’s education are forced to send their children to the local public school. Some of these schools have teachers who are unable to read at the fifth grade level. Some have seen nine-year-old children shot in the school hallways. Others teach “self-esteem” and “diversity” rather than core academic subjects. Many schools in Chicago are so bad that five out of ten students never graduate; of those who do, half leave school as functional illiterates. This isn’t public education. It is more like punishment of the innocent, the result of bureaucracies that put their own survival before the best interests of the children.

Unwilling to sit idly by as yet another generation of Illinois students is irreparably harmed by their public schools, I helped to found the Prairie State Initiative (PSI). PSI is a grassroots movement of voters, parents, and taxpayers who believe that public education in Illinois must focus on children (not schools), and that parents (not bureaucrats, government administrators, or teachers unions) have the right and responsibility to direct the education of their children.

If you believe in those two principles, please join our movement. During the coming years, the Prairie State Initiative will barnstorm the state, identifying Illinoisans–male and female, black and white, liberal and conservative–who want to revitalize public education. PSI members will be supplied with the information they need to become effective advocates of better schools.

We are holding debates and hearings around the state. We publish a monthly newsletter. We are signing up enthusiastic members from Chicago to Carbondale. The Prairie State Initiative has sparked an unprecedented movement to demand that our policymakers change the way we educate our children.

There is no greater threat to the quality of life in Illinois than the hundreds of thousands of children who are too poorly educated to become productive members of society. Please join us as we do our best to save Illinois’s children.

Joseph Walsh is executive director of the PSI initiative. To join PSI, please call (847) 202-9860 or write to: Prairie State Initiative, 800 East Northwest Highway #1060, Palatine, Illinois 60067.