It’s been a banner year for school choice in the United States. Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, many more states have expanded educational options for students through new Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) alongside voucher and tuition tax-credit programs.
Even as more Americans hunger for educational freedom, school choice is about the only thing that Illinois’ Democratic governor J. B. Pritzker won’t throw money at. After initially feigning support for the Invest in Kids program, Pritzker refused to lift a finger this past week when Democrats in Springfield axed it from the state budget. Launched six years ago at the behest of Republican governor Bruce Rauner, the program allowed private citizens and businesses to receive a 75 percent income-tax credit for donating to a state scholarship fund. It resulted in thousands of Illinois students attending private schools, including more than 9,600 students served this year and more than 20,000 others on a waitlist.
We shouldn’t be surprised that a Democratic governor in a state with strong teachers’ unions lacks the political courage to stand on the side of educational freedom. Blue-state Democrats remain caught between an electoral rock (union support) and a hard place (parental demands for education options). Last summer, for example, Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro abandoned a campaign promise to support vouchers, effectively snuffing out school choice in the Keystone State.
But last week’s move by Illinois Democrats is especially unconscionable. First, the lawmakers killed a scholarship program with a track record of giving underserved families a chance to choose the best school for their kids. This wasn’t simply defeating a proposal for a new and untested choice program, but a calculated political effort to eliminate students’ access to their current schools. Now, program administrators are scrambling to find a funding bridge so those students can finish their schooling without disruption.
Second, Illinois Democrats have proved willing to throw minority children under the bus for political expediency. After all, more than half of the program’s recipients were African American or Hispanic kids, many of whom traveled to Springfield to plead with state lawmakers to fund their scholarships. These pleas fell on deaf ears. Democrats sided with the state’s unionized teachers. And after Democrats succeeded in derailing the scholarship program, the Chicago Teachers Union’s vice president, Jackson Potter, gloated on social media that “[Illinois] is officially the first state in the nation to defeat a voucher program that is a MAGA favorite.”
Potter is no social scientist. Surveys unambiguously show that minorities support school choice far more than whites. A recent poll from Impact Research (a Democratic firm) found that while half of Illinois voters wanted the state to fund the tax-credit program, 66 percent of black and 74 percent of Hispanic Illinoisians felt the same. With Democrats so willing to elevate the political preferences of white progressives over the demands of minority families seeking better schools, perhaps Ibram X. Kendi will call for an equity audit of the Illinois statehouse.
Ending the tax-credit program may indirectly worsen Chicago’s notorious crime problem, which also disproportionately affects the city’s minority communities. According to data from the Archdiocese of Chicago, during the 2021-22 school year, 2,970 scholarship recipients, about a third of the total, attended Catholic schools in the greater Chicago area. Research shows Chicago’s parochial schools have long acted as a bulwark against crime and urban decay. As Notre Dame Law professor and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Nicole Garnett demonstrated in her 2014 book, Lost Classroom, Lost Community, Chicago neighborhoods that preserved their Catholic schools fared much better on crime and community-safety indicators than did near-identical parts of the city that lost their parochial schools.
Since the scholarship program helped keep these schools afloat by providing more tuition-paying “customers,” it also helped keep Catholic education chugging along in Chicago. As crime in the city spirals out of control, the collective brain trust of the city’s teachers’ union, Mayor Brandon Johnson, and Governor Pritzker have apparently concluded that now is the perfect time to weaken its Catholic schools.
Some may claim that the crux of the dispute is whether the tax-credit program, and choice programs more generally, boost students’ academic achievement. While the evidence is mixed on whether universal statewide voucher programs boost student performance, randomized studies have shown clearly that these programs are a boon for low-income students leaving failing public schools for better private ones, improving those students’ attainment outcomes into early adulthood.
But don’t think for a minute that Illinois Democrats are pulling the plug because of data-driven decision-making. Howard Fuller, the influential education reformer and the brains behind one of the first voucher programs, explains that choice opponents don’t care whether these programs help disadvantaged kids. “We’re going to have to fight these people . . . And you can’t do it with data. You can’t do it with graphs. You can’t do it with ‘oh my God, if y’all just understood how wonderful we are.’ [Opponents] don’t care how wonderful you are, they’re coming at you [because of politics].”
Careful attention to the political machinations of lawmakers in Illinois backs up Fuller’s claim. Letting Invest in Kids expire was about politics, not program efficacy.
Yes, opponents criticized the program because it lacked data showing that scholarship kids improved their test scores. But the lack of data appears to be due, in part, to Covid-era school closures that coincided with a testing and accountability hiatus championed by progressives and teachers’ unions.
Second, many calling for a rigorous evaluation of the program are the same politicians who demand more education spending without evidence of solid results. The same Illinois Democratic congressional delegation that called for the end of the scholarship program had no problem voting to disburse an unprecedented $200 billion in federal school funding during the pandemic, which came with relatively few strings and no firm requirement to evaluate whether it boosted student achievement.
While Fuller is right that choice opponents won’t be moved by moral or empirical persuasion, the Illinois debacle suggests some important political lessons for the choice movement going forward.
First, choice proponents should avoid putting sunset provisions on these programs, as undoing a program is harder than simply allowing it to expire. Second, they should avoid half-measures. If the scholarship had been given to more families, more outrage would have resulted about its impending expiration and more pressure would have ensued on lawmakers to preserve it. As Fuller notes, data will not persuade the union-captured Democrats—so for school-choice programs to stick, they need to be big enough to shift lawmakers’ political incentives.
All this is, of course, good politics for Republicans, as school choice continues to enjoy a moment in the sun after the pandemic exposed the flaws in public education. But as Illinois has just proved, good politics is not always enough.
Michael Hartney is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and an associate professor of political science at Boston College. Matthew Malec is the Special Projects Coordinator at Echelon Insights.
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