Deep-Blue Illinois Leads the Way on School Choice
Imagine if we had listened to the critics and the naysayers.
Six months ago, few believed meaningful education policy reform in deep-blue Illinois was possible. Springfield was fresh off a bruising political battle over the budget and, amid the dog days of summer, the appetite for another fight was waning. Fortunately, a small group of advocates backed by tens of thousands of parents worked tirelessly to secure a bipartisan solution that expanded high-quality education options for low-income and working-class families of Illinois in the form of tax-credit scholarships.
The fruits of their labor were evident this week when more than 42,000 children across the state of Illinois, from the south side of Chicago to East Saint Louis, applied for a tax-credit scholarship through Empower Illinois — the largest scholarship-granting organization in the state. And thanks to the generosity of donors throughout Illinois, $45 million has been pledged so that more than 7,000 kids in the state now have access to an education that best suits their needs.
There are at least two lessons that can be learned from this. The first is that the demand for expanded schooling options in Illinois is extraordinary. And the second is that, if the opponents and doubters had prevailed, many of those 7,000+ students would have been restricted to schools determined by zip code, instead of being free to choose the best school for them.
Far too many children in vulnerable communities are forced to stay in schools that do not meet their needs. Their families lack the resources necessary to choose a school — whether it is a traditional district school, a charter school, or a private school — that gives their children the high-quality education they need to change the trajectory of their lives.
Traditional education systems, despite the heroic efforts of many well-meaning educators, have, for decades now, simply not worked for many children. The situation is extremely frustrating for parents and their children. They are powerless when their zip code determines whether their child has access to a high-quality education.
Tax-credit scholarships open the doors for low-income and working-class families to help their children find success. In Illinois, courageous elected officials made this possible by putting aside the partisan politics that dominate most policy decisions and putting the needs of children first.
What happened in Illinois can happen all over this country. When all seemed lost and the easy path would have seen any hope for education reform slip away, Democrats and Republicans in Illinois, led by House Speaker Michael Madigan and Governor Bruce Rauner, put the kids first.
Now, attention must focus on ensuring that the program in Illinois is well-managed, well-funded, and well-suited for children throughout the state who need better options to fulfill their educational needs.
Dr. Howard Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education at Marquette University.