Voucher bill picks up steam, passes key House committee

Print More

A controversial school voucher bill sponsored by state Sen. James Meeks has cleared another hurdle, today passing the House Executive Committee on a 10-1 vote. The proposed bill, which would launch the state’s first private school voucher program, now moves to the House floor, where even opponents concede its chance of passage is good.

Meeks turned his attention to vouchers last year. His legislation, SB 2494, would offer state reimbursement for private school tuition—up to $6,000 per child—to families that opt out of one of Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The bill would apply to some 22,000 students in the lowest 10 percent of schools in the district.

Meeks is also pastor of Salem Baptist Church, which operates Salem Christian Academy, a private school that would be eligible to accept students under the voucher proposal.

A controversial school voucher bill sponsored by state Sen. James Meeks has cleared another hurdle, today passing the House Executive Committee on a 10-1 vote. The proposed bill, which would launch the state’s first private school voucher program, now moves to the House floor, where even opponents concede its chance of passage is good.

Meeks turned his attention to vouchers last year. His legislation, SB 2494, would offer state reimbursement for private school tuition—up to $6,000 per child—to families that opt out of one of Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools. The bill would apply to some 22,000 students in the lowest 10 percent of schools in the district.

Meeks is also pastor of Salem Baptist Church, which operates Salem Christian Academy, a private school that would be eligible to accept students under the voucher proposal.

For Meeks and other supporters, the plan offers a cost-effective way to improve opportunities for families stuck in struggling schools. But several groups have lined up in opposition, including some that say it’s unconstitutional to pump state funding into religious schools and others that worry about access issues for students with special needs.

The American Civil Liberties Union could also file a legal challenge. Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the Illinois branch of the ACLU, stopped short of pledging such a challenge. But he said Illinois’ constitution, unlike the legal framework that surrounds some other voucher programs, has clear prohibitions on using state funding for religious schools.

A lobbyist for the Chicago Teachers Union, which could lose members if the bill passes, says vouchers would peel millions of dollars away from a cash-strapped school district and lead to school closings.

“Nobody wants to hear us on that,” says Traci Cobb-Evans with the CTU. “Some people are saying that Chicago will get smaller class sizes, but we know that Chicago will just close schools down for underutilization [as families leave with vouchers].”

CPS officials have remained neutral, so far.

Only state Rep. Dan Brady (R-Bloomington) voted against the proposed bill in committee. However, Rep. Ed Sullivan (R-Springfield) said he would later oppose the bill unless lawmakers take additional steps to restrict funding for the 3-year pilot project to Chicago’s share of general state aid.

According to Sullivan, each student brings roughly $1,650 in general state aid to the city’s schools, plus another $2,700 in supplemental state poverty grants. He says city officials are trying to set up a separate line-item to pay for the voucher program, but he wants to ensure that Chicago’s state aid would be used instead.

“In essence, the voucher should not come from the state board,” he says. “It should be written by CPS.”

That way, he says, suburban districts are not paying for a Chicago program. Yet, he adds, Chicago “still wins” because it gets nearly $7,000 in additional per-pupil funding from property taxes and state and federal block grants—money that CPS would pocket if a student opts out of the city’s schools.

Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago), who chairs the Executive Committee and strongly supports Meeks’ plan, says the “human expense” has to be the overriding consideration, as thousands of students are locked into schools that have under-performed for too many years. He says local school councils and other school improvement strategies just haven’t worked in some schools and he, like Sullivan, wants to try a new tack.

“This opens a whole new door that I don’t think anyone can close,” he says. “So, congratulations to Senator Meeks for doing this.”

Research on voucher programs, however, has found little benefit to struggling students. A Stanford University researcher who examined results from a federal study of the Washington D.C. voucher program found that students who were already higher-performing reaped the most benefit. Milwaukee’s voucher program has produced flat results.