School voucher bill back on Meeks agenda in Springfield

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The Illinois Senate Education Committee voted Tuesday night to pass a
school voucher bill championed by Sen. James Meeks that would help
parents of about 30,000 Chicago Public Schools elementary pupils send
their children to private schools.

The Illinois Senate Education Committee voted Tuesday night to pass a school voucher bill championed by Sen. James Meeks that would help parents of about 30,000 Chicago Public Schools elementary pupils send their children to private schools.

The bill would cost CPS about $3,600 per child, a total of over $100 million.

Committee chairman Meeks (D-Chicago) took a moment before the vote to tell his colleagues about a chat he had with Ron Huberman, Chicago’s former schools CEO. Why, Meeks had asked Huberman, did CPS not oppose legislation that would cost his district more than $100 million per year?

The voucher pupils would be from the poorest-performing and most over-crowded of all CPS schools. Huberman “told me, ‘We don’t have a plan’ for those schools,” Meeks reported. Then he repeated: “He said, ‘We don’t have a plan.’ ”

The committee quickly approved Senate Bill 1932 by a vote of 7-3. The bill now must pass the full Senate, but it’s unclear when that vote will take place.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) is identical to legislation sponsored last year by Meeks, which ultimately failed. It is strongly supported by the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute, a Springfield-based think tank that functions as an arm of the Illinois Republican Party.

Another point that garnered little media attention during last year’s voucher push: Meeks is pastor of House of Hope, a far South Side mega-church that operates a private school, Salem Christian Academy, which stands to potentially benefit under a voucher program.

The list of opponents was as long as your arm.

The Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, regional groups such as ED-RED (a suburban schools organization) and various labor and community organizations signed in against SB 1932.

While sympathizing with low-income students said to be “trapped in failing schools,” opponents objected to diverting public funds to private schools and cited research studies that show voucher programs do not improve learning. Vouchers would just deplete resources needed by the children left behind in the public school system, they asserted.

For parents to be eligible for a voucher, their child must be enrolled in one of the lowest-performing 10% of Chicago elementary schools or in a school defined in the bill as severely over-crowded.

A voucher’s value would be a defined portion of the state funds that CPS receives for low-income youngsters. The total would be about $3,600 per child if the program were in effect this year, ISBE legislative liaison Nicole Wills told the committee. But the amount could fluctuate with state appropriations levels each year, she said.

Murphy did not say Tuesday how many children would be eligible, but estimates for the identical bill sponsored by Meeks in 2010 suggested up to 30,000 students could participate. So the Chicago voucher program could be about a $108 million per year proposition.

Murphy described the voucher program created by the bill as a “pilot project,” although the bill does not say that directly. As a practical matter, a 30,000 student program costing $108 million or more would be difficult to shut down even if it is assessed as mediocre.

One section of the legislation expresses an expectation that, if successful, the program could “expand elsewhere in Illinois.”

SB 1932 presents a huge controversy to a legislative agenda already full of hot-button issues, such as proposals for massive forced consolidation of school districts and deep cuts for education and human services.

It will spark deep political divisions and violent floor debates.

Meeks’ bill last year passed the Senate with 33 votes, but only because the chambers’ 22 Republicans supported it unanimously. A similar split – the GOP in favor, Democrats opposed – occurred in the House, which came within a vote or two of passing the Meeks bill.

Tuesday night, all four committee Republicans supported SB 1932, while the Democrats were split 3-3. Sen. John Mulroe (D-Chicago) saw it as a financial drain on CPS schools. “If one pupil leaves a classroom, the expenses don’t go down,” he said. Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) also voted against the bill because the “public schools are already financially strapped.”

Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester) supported the bill, but almost balked because she “was led to believe” that the private schools would accept a voucher as full payment and would not seek additional money from the parents of the children.

Murphy danced around that issue a bit. He promised to get a letter from the Catholic Conference promising not to reject any child for financial reasons, and to read that letter “into the record” when the bill comes to a vote on the floor of the Senate.

That is a most unusual way to set state policy. Typically, the intent of a piece of legislation is written unambiguously into the bill itself, the way lawyers like it.

But as a fact Murphy apparently did not want to bring to Lightford’s attention, SB 1932 explicitly states that one of its goals for the parents of vouchered students is to “provide them with at least a portion of the funds necessary” to send their kids to private schools.

SB 1932 will repeat last year’s voucher drama in Springfield. Perhaps it will pass this time and perhaps not. It will be a close vote in both chambers.

The Education Committee’s vote Tuesday was pretty much expected. The story behind of Huberman’s lack of opposition to the bill, however, was not.

Jim Broadway is founder and publisher of State School News Service.