Meeks’ voucher bill falls short in House vote

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After a lengthy debate on the House floor, lawmakers voted 48-66 against state Sen. James Meeks’ controversial school voucher bill. The plan would have granted private school tuition vouchers of about $3,300 to perhaps as many as 46,000 students in some 50-70 low-performing and overcrowded Chicago schools.

House sponsor Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Worth) technically postponed the bill for later consideration. But lawmakers will have little time in this session to return to the matter. They must now turn their attention to the 600-pound gorilla in Springfield: passing a state budget before the end of the week.

After a lengthy debate on the House floor, lawmakers voted 48-66 against state Sen. James Meeks’ controversial school voucher bill. The plan would have granted private school tuition vouchers of about $3,300 to perhaps as many as 46,000 students in some 50-70 low-performing and overcrowded Chicago schools.

House sponsor Rep. Kevin Joyce (D-Worth) technically postponed the bill for later consideration. But lawmakers will have little time in this session to return to the matter. They must now turn their attention to the 600-pound gorilla in Springfield: passing a state budget before the end of the week.

In a last plea for support, Joyce concluded debate by asking his colleagues to imagine they were on a bus traveling toward a more perfect solution to the state’s underperforming schools. Out the window, he said, they could see children drowning. “Do we stop the bus, get out and try to save as many as we can,” he asked. “Or do we keep going on the promises of what may come?”

But lawmakers who voted against SB2494 raised a number of concerns, including access for special education students at private schools. Others worried about the ability of low-income families to pay for tuition with insufficient vouchers, or for families to find ways to get their children to private schools without transportation support.

Rep. Art Turner (D-Chicago), whose district includes several of the low-performing schools in question, opposed the measure forcefully. He spoke at length about promising efforts in his community’s charter schools and the need to propagate best practices in his district’s struggling traditional schools. He also said there was simply a lack of Catholic schools in his district today. Like others, he worried about drawing top students out of the traditional schools and demanded action on more pressing school needs. “If we want to do something, let’s mandate preschool,” he said, for example.

In the end, too many groups lined up against SB2494. Rep. Monique Davis, the second to last speaker, at one point rattled off a list of supporters—mostly religious groups and parochial schools—followed by a much longer list of detractors.

Moreover, many of the bill’s finer points were poorly understood by school officials, let alone lawmakers.

For example, Joyce and others said the vouchers would top out at roughly $3,700 by today’s funding levels. But budget officials with the Illinois State Board of Education told Catalyst that the actual calculations would yield a $3,300 voucher. Even CPS officials were still working with their legal department to better understand exactly how many overcrowded schools would be eligible for the voucher plan. Lawmakers repeatedly said the bill would affect about 30,000 students. But a Catalyst analysis found that perhaps as many as 20 overcrowded schools would become eligible, depending on the way CPS defined overcrowding. Such a change would have granted voucher eligibility to nearly 16,000 additional students.