Chicago school vouchers plan moves forward in legislature

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A controversial school voucher plan sponsored by state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) is showing signs of life in the Illinois House, despite the fact that its impact on Chicago schools is largely unknown and a recent study suggests flat results for a similar program in Milwaukee.

A controversial school voucher plan sponsored by state Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) is showing signs of life in the Illinois House, despite the fact that its impact on Chicago schools is largely unknown and a recent study suggests flat results for a similar program in Milwaukee.

Meeks’ bill, SB2494, passed 33-20 in the Senate last month and was immediately sponsored in the House by Rep. Will Davis (D-Chicago). Voucher advocates were especially pleased last week when the Rules Committee assigned the legislation to the House Executive Committee—a sign, perhaps, of growing support among top Democrats.

The committee will likely consider the bill this Thursday, according to a number of Springfield observers. A quick vote could conceivably move it to the House floor, where support among Democrats—who are split over the proposal—may well add to the traditional Republican backing for vouchers and seal a victory for Meeks. It’s unclear if Gov. Pat Quinn would then sign the bill into law.

Lawmakers will almost certainly hear encouragement from school choice advocates and the Catholic Archdiocese, which could see its flagging school enrollment pick up thanks to vouchers. But opposition is cementing among a diverse group of stakeholders—from teachers unions and special education advocates to some community and charter school supporters.

Rep. Roger Eddy, a school administrator in Hutsonville and one of the few Republicans opposed to vouchers, says momentum is clearly building. But he says a number of issues, including a state constitutional ban on public funding for religious groups, ought to kill the effort outright.

“If we’re going to change the constitution, that’s one thing,” says Eddy. “But the other issue is: are we really solving any problems? It’s a pretty elite group of students that would be removed from the public system. What about the other kids?”

Originally proposed as a statewide initiative, Meeks bill has been scaled back considerably. As it stands, SB2494 would now grant vouchers of up to $6,000 to parents who opt out of low-performing elementary school in Chicago and place their children in any accredited private school of their choosing.

Low-performing schools are defined as the 10 percent of Chicago schools that posted the lowest passing rates on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. There is some confusion over the exact list of schools; Chicago Public Schools has not drafted an official list and it remains unclear if alternative and special needs schools should be included. Catalyst used the most recent ISAT scores to identify 48 bottom-scoring schools (10 percent of the 482 elementary schools officially listed by CPS). Most of those schools are located on the city’s west and south sides and enroll 21,219 students, almost all of whom (96 percent) are African American.

Although the school district stands to lose thousands of kids and millions of dollars if the voucher plan passes, officials have remained surprisingly quiet on the issue.

According to one CPS insider, the district has a lot to consider. On the one hand, CPS has poured significant resources into some of the struggling schools on the voucher list, including spending through the school “turnaround” initiative and the union-board Fresh Start program. Vouchers could create an enrollment exodus and kill some of those efforts. On the other hand, many of the low-performing schools are dramatically under-enrolled and vouchers could give the district some relief from community pressure to keep open schools that are costly to run.

Moreover, the district, which is now mired in a $1 billion budget crisis, would presumably serve fewer students with a voucher plan while collecting the same amount of money from local property taxes. As CTU lobbyist Traci Cobb-Evans points out, CPS gets roughly $1,600 in state funds for each student and local taxes are used to meet the rest of the state’s minimum requirement for per-pupil spending, set at $6,119. For each student who participates in the voucher program, CPS would conceivably net around $4,400.

Then again, CPS would lose significant sums from other state and federal funding sources. On top of those complications, Cobb-Evans notes that the state would be forced to cut checks to private schools rather than Chicago. “There would be less [general aid formula] money to go around,” she says.

At the very least, district leaders want to get a better sense of what vouchers would do to their bottom line. Lawmakers could cap the size with a joint appropriations bill or introduce changes that would limit the number of students who could participate. And while some 22,000 students might be eligible, far fewer would take advantage of the program, says Andrew Broy, the new president for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools.

Broy notes that similar voucher programs in cities such as Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and Cleveland have participation rates that hover around 5 percent. He adds that few families across the country take advantage of the provisions in No Child Left Behind that allow students in struggling schools to transfer to better ones. (In Chicago, the provision has been held largely in check by the lack of space in high-performing schools.)

INCS has not taken a position on Meeks’ bill. The charter community is, in fact, split by the idea. Charters have grown in part because of support from school choice advocates who believe that empowering parents to pick schools creates healthy competition. But some charters stand to lose significantly under vouchers. For example, the UNO charter network of schools is popular with parents who might send their children to Catholic schools if funding were available. Vouchers could dramatically impact UNO’s enrollment.

On top of that, many charters lease buildings from the Archdiocese and have poured millions of dollars into restoration projects. Ballooning Catholic school enrollment could perhaps jeopardize some of those leases.

Broy admits there’s at least a small risk, but notes the voucher bill has a long way to go before becoming law.

Besides these concerns, Broy suggests one major difference between charters and private schools that has fed into voucher opposition: Meeks’ bill offers few controls to keep private schools from deciding which students will ultimately be able to enroll. Charters accept students based on lotteries, but private schools can be more discriminating.

That’s ultimately the rationale driving opposition from one special-needs advocacy group. Access Living last week drafted a letter to the chair of the House Executive Committee that laid out a series of concerns on how special education students would be served by vouchers. In other places that have experimented with vouchers, notes Access Living’s Rod Estvan, the flow of state and federal funding for special-needs services stops for private schools, creating legal complications around ensuring that students’ full needs are met. In the end, with private schools grappling with funding shortfalls, the potential is there for discrimination against students with learning or physical disabilities.

“[We] know similar private school choice programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland have not been effective for students with disabilities,” wrote Access Living’s Rod Estvan. “We can see nothing in the language of SB2494 that would lead us to believe a Chicago-based private school choice program would be any better.”

In fact, last week a report by the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas offered disappointing results for Milwaukee’s 20-year-old voucher program. The researchers found that student achievement gains were statistically similar to their public school counterparts.