Want to get angry about politics and politicians? Few things set people off as much as popular ideas and programs getting squelched by politicians listening to powerful, monied special interests.
Which is happening at present to a very popular school choice program: Illinois’ Invest in Kids.
Voters love it. A recent poll by Democrats’ favorite pollster showed it was a landslide winner: 56% of voters supported it to 25% opposed. Support was even greater among Black voters: 66%. Latino voters were at 74% in favor.
“The Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program has majority support among Illinois voters, and is especially supported by parents, voters of color, voters with incomes under $40,000 per year and in all parts of the state,” Impact Research analysts wrote. “And support remains high even after voters hear arguments about the program from critics and proponents alike.”
A June poll from the Illinois Policy Institute conducted by Echelon Insights found similar results, with voters surveyed supported the program 3 to 1.
Another poll found 71% of Black voters and 81% of Hispanic voters backed it.
Popular among Illinois voters, but here comes that special interest: teachers unions. They claim it takes from public education. In reality, it takes from their power base.
If they were really so against private schools, then Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates would not have taken her son out a school staffed by her members and put him in parochial school where she stated he “could live out his dream of being a soccer player while also having a curriculum that can meet his social and emotional needs….” The Illinois Education Association’s chief lobbyist, Sean Denney, would not have picked a parochial school in Springfield for his children. Nearly 40% of Chicago Public Schools teachers would not have enrolled their kids in private schools as of 2013.
But they do want that choice denied to 9,656 low-income students who received Invest in Kids scholarships, including 11 who attend the same private school as Davis Gates’ son.
And their argument is just wrong that public education funding suffers by letting disadvantaged families pick a private school when their children are bullied, in crowded classes, needing a different structure or failing to find the academics and extracurriculars they want in public school.
First, scholarships are funded by donors who get a tax credit. Illinois gives up about $5,900 in revenue per scholarship, which is a win because it costs nearly $18,000 to give that child a public education.
That means government saves nearly $12,100 per student who receives an Invest in Kids scholarship, freeing up those resources to be used elsewhere – including in public schools.
Also, the state funds public education separately. State leaders have added nearly $2 billion to public education funding just since Invest in Kids started.
Baileigh Lavery and her twin sister were severely bullied at their public school in the suburbs. Their father died, so switching to a private school was a financial hardship. The Invest in Kids scholarship changed her life.
“I don’t want lawmakers to look at this easily. I want them to put some hard time into thinking about how this will affect other peoples’ lives. Especially the kids that are struggling with money,” said Baileigh, who is a freshman at Yorkville Christian High School in Plainfield. “Words cannot even begin to express how much these scholarships can truly mean to someone. I want lawmakers to give other kids opportunities to feel the change I felt.”
But this is a fight about special-interest power, and not logic or doing the right thing. Teachers unions have invested nearly $20 million in current state lawmakers – 4 out of 5 of them – so lawmakers are hearing their claims. Union bosses don’t like the competition or the option school choice represents when parents are fed up with unions holding their children’s educations hostage during strikes or extended pandemics.
State lawmakers return to Springfield on Tuesday for veto session. It is a final chance to save Invest in Kids before it expires at the end of 2023.
It’s a chance to listen to Baileigh, or to teachers union money.
Brad Weisenstein is managing editor of the Illinois Policy Institute