How can I be pro-public school, pro-school-choice, anti-voucher–and still find reasons to cheer the new IL plan?

Now that the state’s school funding plan is the law, the big question is whether the Chicago Teachers Union will challenge it.

While the law paves the way for financial stability for Chicago Public Schools, the union signaled a fight around the tax credit scholarship program, a provision added at the 11th hour to garner conservative support.

To be honest, I’m pro-public schools AND pro-school-choice AND anti-voucher because I don’t think the government should be able to give money to religious organizations. Yes, I’m a stickler for that pesky separation of church and state thing.

But what Illinois just approved is NOT a voucher program. Here’s why.

With vouchers, the state collects tax money and issues vouchers to eligible parents, who then sign over the voucher as a tuition payment to a private or parochial school. The money goes from taxpayer to the state then to the private school. That’s where constitutional issues arise.

Tax credit scholarships don’t specifically use public funds as tuition, so they don’t face the same legal hurdles. In fact, when challenged in other states, most courts have found them to be constitutional.

There’s a middleman in these tax credit scholarship plans, and that’s a important distinction. Individuals or corporations donate money to scholarship-granting nonprofits–not to families or specific schools–and the state allows them to get a 75% tax credit on that donation. Not a write off, a flat out tax credit. If a billionaire or corporation donated $1 million to the scholarship fund, then they would get $750,000 of that donation back on their state tax returns.

So yes, it’s a tax break for the uber-wealthy, but it’s not a voucher.

A parent cannot give $20,000 to their favorite Catholic school charity to cover tuition for a specific student and get $15,000 back from the state. It doesn’t work that way. It’s not a voucher. Donors to the scholarship fund cannot earmark money for a specific student; rather, preference is given to the lowest-income applicants clustered in areas with the lowest-performing schools.

And yes, the tax credits will take money out of state coffers, but it’s unclear whether that loss will amount to much of a hit at the local district level–and it certainly can’t be worse than the instability of Illinois’ chronic financial crises.

Think of this way. Illinois spends about 14 percent of its budget on K-12 education, or about $5.46 billion. The most these tax credits will cost the state is $75 million a year, which is amounts to a little more than 1 percent of all state k-12 education funding. Something tells me this isn’t as crippling as the CTU would have you believe, especially with that extra money for retiree pensions.

What else can you find to like about this it’s-not-a-voucher program?

The focus on low-income families levels the playing field and promises to improve choice and equity in a state with a dismal history of inequitable spending and egregious achievement gaps.

The testing requirement is good news, because it means private schools that accept these scholarship dollars have some measure of accountability for the achievement of scholarship students. That’s not good news for the folks who hate accountability as much as they hate choice, but at least there’s some way to measure whether this program is actually helping the low-income and working-class students benefiting from the scholarships.

But here’s what I worry about:

Private schools cream students, and they make no bones about it. They accept the highest-achieving, best-behaved and most motivated students–because they can. And when those students don’t conform, don’t study, don’t behave, don’t attend, they get the boot. That’s the reality. And even though the program offers more scholarship money to students with special needs and to English language learners, the reality is private schools are under no obligation to accept the most vulnerable students with the highest needs –and this plan does nothing to change those admission standards.

So it’s inevitable that the concentrations of troubled students will climb in our neighborhood schools. And that’s something that should give pause to even the fiercest choice supporter.


Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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