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Gov. Bruce Rauner has been clear and concise in his assessment of the Illinois school reform bill, reminding everyone that the point of it is, first and foremost, to ensure that every child in the state gets access to the education they deserve, and taxpayers and families get a positive social return from the millions they invest into the system. While the hard part of any political negotiation is to develop solutions that achieve those goals, thankfully a number of families in partnership with education, faith and business leaders are showing us how it can be done. We just have to be willing to listen to what this broad bipartisan, multi-ethnic coalition is trying to accomplish: Breaking the poverty of opportunity in Illinois.
One way to accomplish this is to use the education funding bill to enact a tax credit scholarship program. Seventeen state legislatures have enacted tax credit laws that allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private, nonprofit, scholarship-granting organizations that issue scholarships to K-12 students. These scholarships allow parents to choose to send their child to a private school if they believe that is the best option for their child.
None of these 17 states have had school districts go bankrupt because of the tax credit scholarship program, nor have millions of students been left without a public school to attend. Scare tactics of this nature were used in an attempt to stop the passage of the Illinois Tax Credits for Educational Expenses Program in 1999. Guess what? More than 285,000 parents with children enrolled in private and public schools benefited from this program in 2014.
Tools such as the tax credit scholarship further empower students to gain access to diverse learning environments, which is a good reason why tax credits are the fastest-growing private school choice program in the country.
Research also validates that parents’ decision to participate in a tax credit scholarship program goes beyond test scores alone. In Georgia, where I am a trustee of the largest tax credit scholarship program in the state, a 2013 study found that parents pick private schools for reasons that include more individualized attention, values of the school, class size, safety and learning (the same things public school parents want for their children). This finding is one of the most important aspects of the American parental choice movement: multiple factors matter in the school selection process.
Another important part about the American parental choice movement is that it is not anti-public education. Let us honor the fact that Illinois has some great public schools and teachers. Millions of families rely on them to help students obtain good jobs, prepare them for service in our armed forces, and pursue post-secondary opportunities. But let us acknowledge that Illinois has some great private schools and teachers, too.
Like many states, Illinois now finds itself at a crossroads. Faced with an extraordinarily challenging legislative fight over education funding, lawmakers must decide whether to trust families to choose where to enroll their children, or whether it is prudent to continue down the path of a one-size-fits all education mindset that has proven unable to break the cycle of poverty for all children.
Public and private schools matter to any opportunity society. So do family, educator, philanthropic, business, and nonprofit partnerships. This civil society approach is essential to help more students realize the benefits of a learning-and-earning economy.
Now, the moment is ripe for the Illinois governor and legislature to invent a new future — one that will have a profound impact on generations to come.
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