The push to dismantle public education via voucher schemes that start small and then metastasize to drain public coffers isn’t just a battle happening in Illinois. It’s nationwide, and it’s accelerating. Below we look at how vouchers are growing in neighboring states.
Wisconsin and Indiana have long been cautionary privatization tales. Wisconsin’s voucher program ballooned from $700K in 1991 to $444M this school year. Indiana’s program started in 2011, and initially budget figures claimed a savings of $4M from the program, but by last year the annual cost was up to $241M. Academic achievement results from Indiana’s voucher program have been dismal. Wisconsin’s program hasn’t had a long-term study for more than a decade, but the most recent study (2010) showed no achievement benefits for voucher students. (See discussion here.)
In Iowa the Republican governor’s plan for creating a massive Education Savings Account program may finally have the votes to succeed after she helped bump off the remaining opponents to it in her own party, rural Republicans, during last year’s primary election. But the battle is a noisy one in their state capitol nonetheless with robust opposition from Democrats in both chambers, and last year’s fight appeared to push public opinion there further against vouchers.
Iowa Capital Dispatch Few Iowa families will have more choices with GOP 'school choice' plan
[Update: Iowa's voucher bill did pass. It is projected to grow from $107M this year to $341M in its fourth year.]
In Missouri lawmakers are already talking about expanding their brand new voucher program, also set up like IL’s as a tax-credit scholarship mechanism, a design choice that deliberately tries to circumvent the separation of church and state with voucher fund middlemen as the conduit for distributing tax dollars to private schools.
A rare bright spot is Kentucky, where their tax credit scholarship program was ruled unconstitutional by the Kentucky Supreme Court last month.
Louisville Public Media Ky. Supreme Court rules school tax credit program unconstitutional
Public Funds Public Schools Kentucky Remains Voucher-Free as Supreme Court Strikes Down Unconstitutional Law
The unanimous ruling makes it clear that the program raises public funds which are diverted to private schools: “[T]he income tax credit raises money for nonpublic education and its characterization as a tax credit rather than an appropriation is immaterial.“ And, since Kentucky’s constitution prohibits spending funds raised for education for anything other than public schools unless it is approved by voters, the program was ruled unconstitutional.
Michigan is another positive piece of news. It's the home state of Betsy DeVos, and she and her family had been dumping millions into a push for a massive tax credit scholarship program there. But with the control of the Michigan legislature switching from Republican to Democratic in November and a likely defeat at the polls due to the unpopularity of voucher programs, DeVos-funded groups withdrew their attempt to get a ballot initiative approved that would have created the voucher program without the need for approval from the Governor.
What to make of all this from our near neighbors? One, it is imperative that Illinois’ program ends as intended! Even small-ish programs can grow huge quickly. The fight here currently is to make Invest in Kids permanent. If pro-voucher groups succeed, they will then simply return to Springfield with their busloads of voucher students to push to make the program bigger. Bills trying to do both have previously been introduced in Springfield with support from both sides of the aisle (e.g. see expansion bills here and here and bill to make permanent here.)
Two, those of us who are pro-public schools may not have billionaires bankrolling us, but we do have the facts and popular opinion on our side. Once people know about this program, they are very alarmed. As the Kentucky court case made clear, this program is taking tax revenue that should be appropriated for the public good and redirecting it for private purposes. Moreover, it is funding mostly religious institutions, and many of these schools, possibly most, engage in discrimination. (Only 15% of Invest in Kids voucher schools report serving any special education students!)
Meanwhile, our public schools, which must serve all kids, are still short by billions of dollars of state funding. Voucher programs aren’t good public policy, and this is a fight worth having.
Hundreds of bills are introduced in Springfield every session. Here's some of the bills that we'll be supporting or following closely during the spring 2023 session of the 103nd IL General Assembly.
Key legislative initiative
Sunset Invest in Kids voucher program - [Fact Sheet] The Invest in Kids Act created a school voucher program in the form of a tax credit scholarship scheme in 2017. The Act was to sunset after five years, but has already been extended for one year. More than three dozen local, state and national orgs have endorsed letting this program sunset as planned. If no new legislation is passed to amend the act, next school year will be the final year of the program with a sunset date for all provisions of Jan 1, 2025. (As such, there is more than one bill which may move that would implement a sunset or none at all.) Read more about our campaign to end it here.
Other bills we support
Clean Air for Healthy Equitable Schools - HB 3713 [Fact Sheet] Initiative of Illinois Stakeholders for Air Quality in Schools. It will be amended to include not just ventilation verification assessments but the distribution of high-quality HEPA filters and air quality monitors to immediately improve air quality for all children, teachers, and staff in IL public schools.
Racism Free Schools - SB 90/HB 2049 [Fact Sheet] Requires school districts to create and implement a policy on race-related harassment and discrimination and classifies racial harassment as a civil rights violation. Read more details about the bill content here.
Child Tax Credit - SB 1444/HB 3950 [Fact Sheet] Illinois has long had one of the most regressive state tax systems in the country, in part because the Illinois constitution bars the state from levying a graduated income tax, and so Illinois does not have the ability to raise income tax rates for the people who can afford to pay the most. Until the constitution is amended, advocacy orgs from around the state, including IL Families for Public Schools, are partnering with the Cost of Living Refund Coalition to ameliorate the effects of IL’s regressive tax policies with tax credits for lower-income brackets. This session the coalition is supporting a child tax credit; eligible low- and middle-income Illinois families would receive a $700 tax credit for each child under the age of 17. This would benefit half of Illinois households with children.
Minimum Funding Level - HB 2792 Increases the minimum required increase to Evidence-Based Funding (EBF) to $550M instead of the current $350M. State funding for public schools is billions short of what each district needs to adequately educate its students. With an increase to EBF each year of only $350M, we will not reach full funding until 2054. Resetting the minimum to $550M would be a positive step to accelerating the path to fair funding for Illinois' public schools.
No Book Bans - HB 2789 Protects against attempts to ban, remove, or otherwise restrict access to books or other materials in the State's public libraries and public school libraries by requiring school and public libraries to adopt policies against censorship and book banning in order to receive grants from the Illinois State Library, including the School District Library Grant. (Many school districts already have existing policies on the books that would meet the requirements of this bill.)
As we've been sharing, the General Assembly has one more short “lame duck” session this week before new legislators are seated on Jan 11th. We’re concerned that legislation extending or even expanding the Invest in Kids voucher program could get traction. Keep reading for what you can do to make sure that doesn’t happen!Read more
Voucher programs around the country—whether in the form of traditional vouchers, education savings accounts (ESAs),or tax credit scholarships—are supported by well funded and organized groups. These include: Americans for Prosperity (the Koch brothers’ 501c4), the American Legislative Education Council (ALEC), the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos’ 501c4), Moms for Liberty and the Heritage Foundation, among others.
What do these organizations have in common? They work openly to discredit public schools and push a privatization agenda, using the slogans of school choice, education freedom and parent rights. Many of them were on the ground working on the April 2023 school board elections in Illinois.
Are these groups in Illinois?
Yes, DeVos’ American Federation for Children hired a full time lobbyist in Springfield in February 2022, Nate Hoffman. In addition, AFC also created a PAC, the Illinois Federation for Children, formed in March 2022, chaired by Hoffman, which spent more than $700K on Illinois elections in 2022.
Hoffman previously worked for Empower Illinois, the largest Invest in Kids scholarship granting organization (SGO), i.e. an organizational middleman for voucher distribution; and now works for ExcelinEd, Jeb Bush’s ed privatization think tank. He is a board member of Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), an national organization founded by Megyn Kelly that has been active locally in Evanston IL to oppose diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
The Illinois affiliate connected to the State Policy Network, a sister organization to ALEC, is the Illinois Policy Institute, known for its role in the anti-union Janus decision, is a major supporter of Invest in Kids. You can watch a recent video where AFC’s Hoffman is interviewed by IPI’s Hilary Gowins, senior vice president of the Illinois Policy Institute here.
Americans For Prosperity has long supported Invest in Kids, and in summer 2023 began a new push to "save" the program from sunsetting. Read all about that here.
Moms for Liberty lists four chapters in Illinois, and two of their chapter leaders are also leaders of Awake IL (DuPage County, Cook County.) Both of these groups have actively worked against covid mitigation measures in schools, comprehensive sex education, social-emotional learning, as well as teaching about race and honest history. They have promoted book bans at schools and libraries, for material on topics like LGBTQ+ individuals,and race.
Awake IL’s parental bill of rights calls for allowing parents to “take their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars to the education providers of their choosing whether public or private,” and the document links that phrase to the Education Freedom Pledge of the American Federation of Children, a pledge signed by a single Illinois lawmaker thus far. They extol their support for “education freedom” on social media, and one of their board members runs a chain of private schools that Awake promotes on their website, along with other new private schools.
Betsy DeVos headlined the Moms for Liberty conference in July 2022, which featured a session on “education freedom,” aka an even broader set of ways to funnel public dollars to private education schemes.
What other organizations support Invest in Kids in Illinois?
The main beneficiaries of Invest in Kids include the Archdiocese of Chicago and other organizations that run or support religious schools. 95% of Invest in Kids’ $75M in vouchers went to religious schools in 2021-2022—at least 40% ($30M) of that to 349 Catholic schools, and at least 28% ($20M) to 19 Jewish schools.
There are two scholarship granting organizations (SGO) connected to the Archdiocese, the Big Shoulders Fund and Empower Illinois. Empower IL, the state's largest SGO, was formed in 2012, originally called Freedom to Learn IL and then One Chance IL. Empower was key in drafting and passing the Invest in Kids Act in 2017. Dan Proft was an original board member of Freedom to Learn. Juan Rangel, known for his role in multiple scandals connected to the UNO Charter chain in Chicago, is on the staff of Empower.
Scholarship granting organizations can use up to 5% of their contributions for operating costs, including lobbying, which would be ~$2.4M for Empower and $1.2M for Big Shoulders in 2021-2022.
Another active group lobbying for Invest in Kids is Agudath Israel of Illinois, sending busloads of voucher supporters to Springfield at a time. Vouchers are a national policy priority for Agudath Israel. Agudath of IL’s primary SGO partner on Invest in Kids is Empower IL; one of their executive committee members, is on the Empower board of directors and the board of several schools accepting vouchers. Agudath went as far as setting up a warehouse in 2018 with hundreds of computers and fiber optic lines to get students’ applications to Invest in Kids completed.
What does all this mean for citizens concerned about public funds supporting private schools?
Here’s a question to ask your state representative and state senator:
Why would a legislator who considers themselves pro-public education support a program that sends public tax dollars to private religious schools, and thereby align themselves with groups affiliated with Betsy DeVos, the Koch Brothers and other conservative organizations who support policies to dismantle public education that they reject?
Public dollars should be used to support public schools which open their doors to all kids without discriminating on the basis of religion, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity. Public education and public schools are a public good that benefits everyone.
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More information about the Invest in Kids voucher program, why it needs to end, and what you can do to make that happen at: ilfps.org/sunsetinvestILvouchers
Public schools in Illinois can't discriminate on the basis of disability status, gender identity, sexual orientation, language, pregnancy or parenting status, marital status, or religion. But under the Invest in Kids voucher program, public dollars are now going to private schools in Illinois, many of which do discriminate against students in all these protected categories.
Public dollars should be for public schools—schools that serve all children and families.
That's why IL Families for Public Schools, along with more than 50 state and local orgs in Illinois are calling for the Invest in Kids program to end—just like the IL General Assembly intended for it to do when it was created it in 2017. Call your state rep and state senator and ask them to oppose any extension or expansion of this program. You can read our most recent action alert here and everything you need to know about the Invest in Kids voucher program here.
[Jan 3 2023: Updated alert here] Snow and winter holidays are quieting things down on the political front, but the IL General Assembly will be back right after New Year's Day in a “lame duck” session. And, just like with veto session, it’s possible that during lame duck, legislation on the Invest in Kids voucher program could move that included an extension, expansion or making it permanent.Read more
IL-FPS was in Springfield during this week’s veto session to talk to legislators about Illinois' voucher program. The law that created the program in 2017, the Invest in Kids Act, was supposed to sunset after five years, but it's already been extended for an extra year. Voucher supporters want to remove the sunset clause to make the program permanent and also expand it. But we think public funds should only be for public schools, and we're launching a campaign to push for Invest in Kids to sunset for good. We’re happy to report back that, despite massive amounts of lobbying from pro-voucher groups, there wasn’t movement during veto session on any legislation regarding the Invest in Kids Act.Read more
Below is a map of Invest in Kids voucher recipients by zip code for the 2021-2022 school year. Original data via the IL Department of Revenue. Spreadsheet of data available here. Mapping courtesy of Anthony Moser.
To 15 zip codes by number of students:
Key: No. of recipients within zip code area
In 2017, the IL General Assembly passed the Invest in Kids Act and created what was supposed to be a temporary school voucher program that could divert up to $75 million per year in public dollars to fund private schools in Illinois. Voucher programs siphon funds from public schools, they don’t promote education equity and they don’t improve outcomes for the students who receive them. You can read our FAQ about problems with the Illinois’ voucher program here.
Now supporters want to make this program permanent and expand it. This would be extremely damaging for Illinois’ public education system, and that’s why Illinois Families for Public Schools is working with many other state and local orgs, including the League of Women Voters of IL, IL’s teachers unions, the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and many others, to call for ending this program for good.Read more
The IL State Board of Ed held a series of budget hearings this month to get feedback from the public on requests for the state's FY2024 budget for public education. IL Families for Public Schools' Samay Gheewala spoke at the Oct 4th hearing, along with representatives of several other members of the PEER (Partnership for Equity and Education Rights) Illinois funding coalition. Read his remarks after the jump.Read more