What choice? Group gives Illinois poor grade for school options


By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Very few parents would accept a D-plus report card from their kids, but that’s what Illinois earned on a report on education options.

ALMOST FAILING: Students First gives Illinois a D+ for school choice.

Illinois’ school choice report card from education advocate Students First is a step above failing — not only because the state offers limited school choices (few charter schools or private schools), but also because public schools many times fail to give parents the information needed to make a choice.

“Parents lack accessible information regarding school and classroom performance to make better decisions,” the Students First report states. “The state (also) lacks strong fiscal transparency that allows the public to link spending data to student academic outcomes.”

State Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, said in Illinois parents have three choices: public schools, a limited number of charter schools and private schools paid for out of parents’ pockets.

“When you think about the states that have active school choice, they’re a little more conservative. And Illinois is a little more liberal,” Ford told Illinois Watchdog. “And I don’t understand how a liberal state would be against being liberal when it comes to educating our children and meeting their needs.”

Ford is one of the few Chicago Democrats to fight for school choice. He’s been pushing for scholarships, paid for by the state lottery, that would give low income students in Chicago a choice other than local public schools.

“The pushback comes from legislators in the city (of Chicago),” Ford said, “where people believe that the only way we should use state dollars is to promote public schools.”

Adam Rogalski, director of advocacy and policy leadership for the Illinois’ Network of Charter Schools‘, said Illinois’ powerful teachers unions are also part of that pushback.

“The Illinois teacher unions are powerful and oppose many school choice options. However, they are not the sole reason for limitations on school choice options across the state,” Rogalski explained. “There are some unionized charter public schools in Chicago. There are a range of political and economic factors that come into play. But the fact remains clear, more Illinois families are demanding school choice options.”

Illinois has capped charter school growth. A 1996 law limited the state to just 75 charter schools in Chicago, and 45 throughout the rest of the state. There are about 60 such schools currently operating in Illinois.

Ford said that will change, eventually. He expects another push for more school choice, but not full school choice, when lawmakers return to the state capitol this spring.

“I think school choice will be a debate (this spring),” Ford said. “It only makes sense that this never goes away…Before we expand to a full voucher system, it makes no sense not to visit the pilot (program) of lottery scholarships.”

Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org and find him on Twitter @BenYount.

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