Something revolutionary is happening right now in education. Illinois, one of the most union-dominated states in the country, is ushering in a new era of educational freedom. Governor Bruce Rauner has pulled off the seemingly impossible: He led a bipartisan effort to bring educational choice to Illinois, and it begins this week.
Through a historic new program signed into law by Governor Rauner last year, taxpayers can now receive tax credits for helping fund a $100 million scholarship program. In the first year, children from families with incomes less than 300 percent of the federal poverty line will be eligible to receive a scholarship on a first-come, first-served basis.
Beginning this week, students and their families may apply for scholarships through the Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Program’s designated scholarship-granting organizations.
The scholarship program has received influential backing from across the political spectrum, including from religious leaders such as Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Just as encouragingly, the support from individuals and businesses wishing to participate in the tax-credit program has been overwhelming. In just the first 48 hours of opening the window for participation, the Illinois Department of Revenue reported that half of the needed donations for the first year of the program had been pledged.
To be sure, the program is not perfect, and Governor Rauner will be the first to tell you as much. It comes with a five-year sunset provision — giving low-income students the chance at a quality education for five years and then ripping it away from them, which is just cruel.
But this is a stepping stone that will enable parents and educational-choice advocates to campaign for the program’s continuity and expansion over the next five years. In every state with similar tax-credit scholarship programs, the programs have only grown in size and scope because students are learning and parents are satisfied with the results.
In Florida, where I was governor from 1999 to 2007, we have witnessed the tremendous impact educational choice can make. A report issued recently by the Urban Institute studied the Florida Tax Credit scholarship program we started in 2001, which today serves more than 100,000 students. The report found that participating students were more likely to enroll in college and complete degree programs than their peers.
Educational freedom is on the rise across the nation because it works. Today, more than 3.5 million students are going to the public or private schools of their choice, which is more than double the number of just a decade ago. Nearly 90 percent of all states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools, with Kentucky joining the ranks last year. And more than half of all states, including new addition Illinois, now offer at least one private-school-choice program as well.
Educational freedom is on the rise across the nation because it works.
This progress in expanding educational freedom is encouraging because the stakes for America could not be higher. According to the Nation’s Report Card, more than 60 percent of fourth graders can’t read or do math on grade level. Just 37 percent of today’s students will leave high school ready for college coursework or a well-paying job. This is despite spending more per student than almost every country in the world. The data are even more discouraging when examined in a global context, with American students recently falling to 35th in the world on international math assessments.
We can do better for our nation, and we must. All parents should have the right to send their children to the school they choose, regardless of zip code or income barriers.
Illinois — and especially Chicago — has long been ripe for school choice. With some of the most severe poverty in the nation, far too many children are stuck in failing inner-city public schools. Thanks to Governor Rauner and his common-sense leadership, many of these children will now have a chance at a better education and a brighter future.
Illinois is still in need of a host of conservative policy reforms to reverse years of corrupt leadership, but this bold education program is reason to cheer. Thanks to Bruce Rauner and educational-choice advocates in the general assembly, Illinois students will have more opportunities than ever before.
— Jeb Bush served as the 43rd governor of Florida, ran for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and is the chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.