Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Next time Mrs. O’Leary’s cow could start with the schools

7

If I ever feel depressed about Wisconsin politics, all I need to do is take a trip south of the border. Not to Mexico, but to Illinois.

Last weekend I was in Chicago at a conference, Amplify School Choice, sponsored by the Franklin Center*. After a tour of Leo High School, a small Catholic school on Chicago’s South Side serving an urban population, attendees were taken back to the conference to hear about the efforts in Illinois to give parents more options for educating their children.

Imagine a state where there is no private school choice program. There are public charter schools, mostly in Chicago, but the competition to get in is literally winning a lottery. As in Milwaukee, charter schools in Chicago also struggle to find suitable facilities. It is a situation made worse because the agreement with the teachers union prevents the Chicago school district from selling unused school buildings to charter schools. Despite a statewide board capable of creating more charter schools, there is also a three year moratorium on online public charter schools.

For most parents educational choice depends on their income. If they have the money to move to a better zip code, or if they can afford a private school, or if they can afford to have a parent homeschool the children, then the parents have a choice. Otherwise their children are trapped in failing schools.

Illinois does have a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who is supportive of school choice. However, Rauner faces a legislature that is controlled by the Democratic Party. Making matters worse, many downstate Republicans are also hostile to voucher programs and were actually responsible for killing the last effort to start a private school choice program in Chicago.

The challenge for school choice advocates in Illinois is how to give parents more educational options in such a political environment. What allies can be found to form a coalition to open school house doors for children stuck in failing schools? Can advocates of school choice force a change during the current budget crisis, and should they? Is the word “voucher” really bad for the school choice movement, or are we ready for The Voucher Dialogues with Hispanics?

Representing the different perspectives, if unintentionally, were Ted Dabrowski from the Illinois Policy Institute, Myles Mendoza of One Chance Illinois and Illinois state Rep. Jeanne Ives.

Dabrowski’s current project is forming a coalition in the Waukegan school district to try to force the issue of school choice there. He decided to focus on a local school district after the failure of a voucher plan for Chicago at the state level. Despite Waukegan’s location on Chicago’s north shore, the community never recovered from the loss of manufacturing. Making matters worse, the school district’s poor performance is preventing a renaissance in housing values.  Dabrowski hopes that vouchers will resonate with Hispanic voters and others to encourage a takeover of the school district. In 2015, they nearly swept the school board elections.

Mendoza is working behind the scenes in Springfield to create a tax credit for Illinois corporations that would allow them to donate to scholarship granting organizations to send kids to private schools. By creating the scholarship granting organizations and using corporate tax credits to finance the program, the money for education is never in the control of the state. This would allow school choice for religious schools without running into state constitution concerns. The problem is that the tax credits will have to be part of a larger compromise in a really bad budget, including likely tax increases. Aside from the budget issues, members of the audience were also concerned about the lack of transparency with all the behind the scenes maneuvering. On the other hand, the scholarship granting organizations are not nearly as objectionable to some Illinois legislators as vouchers.

Ives was clearly uncomfortable with Mendoza’s approach. She still supports vouchers and would like to see a voucher bill pass. However, in regards to the Rauner and the budget, she had hoped that he would focus on the issue of public employee pensions. By fixing that issue and solving the budget crisis, focus could then return to other issues. However, since budget negotiations are not just focused on dealing with the pension crisis, she supports expanding the state’s educational tax credit from $500 to $1500 per child and expanding how it can be used. She wanted the credit able to be used by parents to cover all extracurricular educational activities even if they are not provided by the school, such as music lessons.

I left the conference with a feeling of optimism that something might be done in Illinois to give parents more educational options. However, despite a short drive to the border, they’re still a long way from Wisconsin, and it’s going to take a long time to get here.

*Note: I would like to thank the Franklin Center for providing accommodations and covering expenses.
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