Pro-public schools coalition calls for Illinois’ school voucher program to end

DOE office of Nuclear Energy visit the BASIS DC Public Charter School on October 20, 2017. Original public domain image from Flickr

A coalition of local, state and national organizations are calling for the Illinois General Assembly to ensure Illinois’ Invest in Kids voucher program ends as intended after the coming school year.

The coalition said in a statement the program has diverted more than $190 million in tax dollars to hundreds of religious schools around the state that are not required to follow most federal and state anti-discrimination laws, many of which are discriminating against children on the basis of disability status, LGBTQ status, religion, pregnancy status and more.

Coalition members include community organizations; faith based groups; the state’s biggest teachers unions, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers; civil rights advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Illinois, Equality Illinois and Access Living; and public education advocacy groups.

“This program is not an investment in kids, but a loophole for diverting public funding toward harmful school privatization efforts. It gives a huge tax break to the wealthy while taking funds from the kids in public schools who need it the most,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “The private schools who then benefit have zero accountability and aren’t required to adhere to state standards.”

The Invest in Kids Act is scheduled to sunset after the 2023-2024 school year, but supporters have been lobbying intensely for it to continue and grow. Legislators have introduced bills to eliminate the program, but also bills to extend and expand it so far this session. Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s budget for 2024 did not include the program.

“Illinois is not currently fully funding the evidence-based school funding formula. Four out of five of our schools are not funded appropriately. Until we fully fund Illinois public schools, which provide an education for ALL students, tax credits, which are essentially school vouchers, should not be available to fund private and religious schools,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association. “In addition, there is no meaningful data being collected for this program. We don’t know how many students, new to the schools, this voucher scheme is funding; the retention rate of students attending; learning outcomes or the impact on enrollment at nearby schools.”

About 95% of Illinois private schools receiving vouchers are religious, and anti-discrimination laws mostly do not apply to religious schools. Discrimination by schools receiving Invest in Kids vouchers in admissions and other policies is widespread based on research by advocacy group Illinois Families for Public Schools ( IL-FPS). IL-FPS has found examples—from dozens of schools receiving millions of dollars—of policies that discriminate against students on the basis of disability, LGBTQ, English-language learners, religion, pregnancy and more.

“At a time of vicious attacks on LGBTQ+ youth across the country, Illinois must ensure public benefits are dedicated to serving the good of all youth, including LGBTQ+ youth,” said Brian C. Johnson, CEO of Equality Illinois and a former first grade teacher. “Public funds and tax credits should not be used to support private schools that are empowered to discriminate against LGBTQ+ students and families. “

“Illinois is still billions away from adequately funding our public schools. Research shows vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes. Scarce state dollars must go to public schools to fund what we know works—small classes, nurses, librarians, modern facilities—not be diverted to private schools that refuse to serve all kids,” said Cassie Creswell, director of Illinois Families for Public Schools.