Vouchers are sunsetting: What's next?

The Illinois General Assembly left Springfield at the end of Veto Session without taking a vote to extend the program beyond its current sunset date, and the program will begin to sunset on Dec. 31, 2023. This was a huge organizing win for public schools in Illinois and a major victory in the national fight to rollback privatization of the public school system. 

vouchers_sunset_win.pngA key component of the success of this campaign was public school advocates on the ground all across the state talking to their state legislators about why vouchers hurt public schools and the public good. All of those phone calls, emails, meetings, flyering, mobilizing your friends, neighbors and colleagues sharing high-quality information about why the program needed to end were the collective action that got this done!

Another crucial component to create the political will in the General Assembly to let the program die was building a broad coalition of 70 organizations that endorsed ending the Invest in Kids program altogether. That coalition, among others, included: unions, state-level issue advocacy organizations, school management orgs, local progressive political groups, community orgs.

Despite decades of being underfunded and undermined, public schools are popular, and Illinoisans want to see them supported and thriving! Thank you to everyone who put their energy into this big push to ensure our elected officials did right by our public schools and the public good in our state!

What can we do now?

Let people know this was a big win. It was not a foregone conclusion that the program would end. In 2022, the GA simply voted quietly for a one-year extension. Without organizing and political pressure, a similar vote could have happened again. And the conventional wisdom over the past year has been that a gradual phase-out with bipartisan support was the most likely scenario for the future of vouchers in Illinois.

  • Here’s the statement we shared in November. Please share widely: IL-FPS

Unfortunately, a lot of the reporting on the program itself and the fight to end it has been mediocre at best. There’s been almost no critical coverage since 2018 and zero investigative reporting, but here’s a couple links worth sharing with your networks:

✶ Thank legislators who opposed extension, especially those who have been willing to go on the record publicly about their position. There aren’t many of them, and they deserve accolades: Representatives Will Guzzardi, Kelly Cassidy, Abdelnasser Rashid, and Senator Robert Peters. (Let us know if we've missed someone!) If your own legislators said that they opposed the extension of the program, please thank them as well.

✶ Thank the seven US Congressional Reps, led by Congresswoman Schakowsky, who called for the program to end: Representatives Nikki Budzinsky, Sean Casten, Danny Davis, Jonathan Jackson, Raja Krishnamoorthi, and Delia Ramirez.

What’s next? 

The pro-voucher advocates won’t be going away quietly and are sure to be back in Springfield asking the General Assembly for ways to reinstate the program. The action steps above will help ensure that they don’t get traction. 

Unfortunately, the way the Invest in Kids Act statute is written leaves an opening for voucher advocates. It allows scholarship granting orgs to continue accepting contributions through December 31, 2023, but at the same time requires that all SGO funds be spent by that same date.

The largest SGO, Empower Illinois, continues to actively solicit contributions. There will almost certainly be unspent funds in SGO accounts after December 31, and it's not clear what their status will be. We think the ethical solution would be for SGOs to return them to their contributors. But, the many six-figured-salary administrators of the SGOs will probably disagree, and they may even try to use them for scholarships in the 2024-2025 school year, an end run around the sunset.

We will keep you in the loop as there are further developments. Be prepared to advocate on trailer legislation when the General Assembly returns in mid-January. We may need another strong show of unity to keep the program from rising again.

The budget for Fiscal Year 2025 is already under discussion. Invest in Kids has siphoned away about $50 million each year from the General Revenue Fund. In theory, without this diversion of funds, it should be an easier ask for ILGA to appropriate a minimum of $400M to new evidence-based funding dollars (i.e. versus only $350M) with the sunset in place. Of course, far more than $400M/year is needed for FY2025 to achieve even 90% full funding as of FY2027. Remind your legislators of the sunset and the dollars it freed up when you are talking to them about K-12 public school funding

The end of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding, an anticipated drop in Personal Property Replacement Tax revenues, and no solutions on progressive revenue from our state elected officials on the horizon mean the fight for public schools that have the resources to educate all Illinois’ children will be ongoing on the state and local level. Onwards!