In the flurry of negotiations last month about state education funding, an interesting piece of legislation sailed through the public policy and media ecosystem without much fanfare. And that may have not been coincidental.
The benign-sounding Invest in Kids Act is a five-year pilot program that provides $75 million in tax credits to those who donate to private high school and elementary school scholarship funds.
It works by giving people and companies a credit worth 75 percent of a donation, capped at $1 million. State-approved nonprofit organizations gather donations and provide the credits, then give private schools money for scholarships geared toward lower-income families.
On the surface, that might not seem like a big deal, but to teacher unions and critics of GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner, who signed the legislation, the program essentially puts the state indirectly in the business of supporting private and parochial institutions instead of public schools.
For them, that’s a red flag because Rauner is a longtime advocate of school choice — allowing public education funds to follow a student to a public, private or charter school regardless of location.
The idea of blowing up the district model, based on where someone lives, has been fiercely opposed by teachers' unions, so it makes sense they came out swinging when the scholarship plan got traction.
“Unfortunately, Illinois legislators have voted to 'reform' the worst school funding system in the country with a ticking time bomb of a voucher scheme, and the Illinois Democratic Party has crossed a line which no spin or talk of 'compromise' can ever erase,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement.
Such rhetoric may be extreme, but it does raise the kind of fundamental questions we should be asking about school funding in Illinois.
In our view, it gives us pause that the state would get further into the business of providing taxpayer money, even indirectly, to private schools. We also worry that beefing up scholarship programs will mean public school districts will lose high-performing students to private institutions. Such a shift is fine when free market forces are play, but the state shouldn’t play a part.
But our biggest issue is that this scholarship topic wasn’t part of a bigger discussion about school choice, one that clearly has merit. Instead it was in a 550-page bill, and lawmakers from both parties have said it was there as a compromise to get the education funding formula change passed.
That’s fine — we support the efforts to apply a more equitable funding formula to Illinois school funding. It is long overdue.
However, we think a discussion about school choice should be considered, given it is done in a robust and transparent way with all voices heard. In our view, there should be a conversation about whether it is time to explore those options.
That’s where the scholarship discussion should have happened, not behind closed doors as a compromise.