Education

A New Blue-State Experiment with School Reform

(Photo: Roman Snytsar/Dreamstime)
Education opportunity should be the price Illinois governor Bruce Rauner demands in return for Chicago getting its pension bailout.

Unless Governor Rauner and the Democratic leadership in control of Illinois’s house and senate agree to a new education-funding system soon, many schools won’t open their doors next month. That’s because the budget that passed last month calls for a new “evidence-based” funding formula to distribute state money to schools.

Fortunately, a bipartisan school-funding-reform commission has been working to come up with a replacement for the byzantine system that has controlled funding for state schools for years. While Democrats and Republicans agree on much of the bill, in its current form it amounts to a taxpayer bailout of the Chicago Public Schools system, which has skipped most payments into its teacher pension funds for more than a decade and failed to deliver even an adequate education to most of its students for decades.

However, Governor Rauner has an opportunity to craft a compromise solution that provides the key to better education for all kids and ensures that schools open on time. The grand bargain would be simple: He agrees to Democrats’ demands if they include a tax-credit scholarship program in the education-funding-formula legislation. It would not only unite parents and children who have been clamoring for better learning opportunities, but set the city on a course to economic solvency. And with a balanced economy, all have the opportunity to participate in the American dream.

A number of other states have already shown the way. Many, including Florida, Arizona, and Indiana, along with the District of Columbia, have created an educational and economic renaissance in communities where Opportunity Scholarship Programs are available. It’s a model that has endured for affluent Americans whose choice of schools invests them in their communities and improves the lot for all children. If Democrats in the state truly believe that the quality of a child’s education should not depend on his zip code — one of the key talking points used to promote education-funding reform — they should accept this compromise.

The concept is fairly simple: Individuals or businesses can claim a credit against their tax bill for donations made to authorized organizations that in turn use those donations to fund tuition scholarships for eligible students to attend a school of their choice. In other words, if an individual donates $1,000 to a nonprofit that provides scholarships, his or her tax bill is reduced by $1,000. The nonprofit then gives the money to families who use it to pay tuition at private schools.

These programs are hugely popular with parents and children. Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program began in 2001 and has grown dramatically. In its first year, there were 12,500 applications for 750 scholarships. This year, 98,000 FTC students attend 1,712 private schools throughout Florida. The results were impressive: A study by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research found that students who received scholarships scored higher than their similar demographic peers in both reading and math. Lawmakers in the Florida legislature have continued to build their program on a broadly bipartisan basis.

There is striking evidence that scholarship tax credits improve public-school performance.

There is also striking evidence that scholarship tax credits improve public-school performance. The same Northwestern study found that Florida’s program has helped traditional schools improve because, for the first time, they faced competition from other schools, charter and private alike. Schools in the state felt the competitive pressure and saw modest improvements in student test scores. It’s a healthy dynamic that improves overall performance in each.

Educational choice makes other efforts to improve schools more powerful, too. Senate Bill 7 — a reform bill passed in 2011 aimed at stopping teachers from striking and at improving teacher performance — has lacked teeth precisely because Chicago’s lowest-income families have no recourse when their child is placed with a poor-quality teacher. That’s how principals can get away with ranking over three-quarters of teachers as good or excellent, and the unions can claim it is truly a reflection of their members’ quality, even when only a fraction of the city’s graduating seniors are college-ready.

Of course, just down the road from Illinois there are several very successful programs that can be used as models. Indiana’s Choice Scholarship Program was launched six years ago and is now one of the largest and fastest-growing programs in the nation, with more than 34,000 students at over 300 schools. And Wisconsin, which has been a pioneer in educational choice for a quarter century, has both a statewide parental-choice program, and local programs in Milwaukee and Racine.

The governor has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve education for families in Illinois. He should take advantage of it and ensure that students across the state have access to the quality educational options they need and deserve.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, D.C.

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