A Big Blue Win in Illinois!

Last week, the school choice movement had its first victory in a big and overwhelmingly Democratic state as the Illinois House and Senate gave strong approval to the creation of a $100 million scholarship tax credit program as well as much higher per pupil funding for charter students.

The $100 million scholarship tax credit program was on Governor Rauner’s list of reform demands for his signing into law a dramatic change in the state’s school aid formula that will slowly redirect state aids toward underfunded rural and urban schools and away from high spending suburban schools.

The new program allows individual and corporate taxpayers to receive a tax credit equal to 75% of the donations they make to scholarship granting organizations.  Students from families making less than 300% of the federal poverty level can qualify for scholarships and they can continue to receive them until their family’s income reaches 400% of the federal poverty limit.  For the first three months of the year, scholarship organizations must prioritize students from certain families with greater need including those whose families qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, those who attend school districts with poorly performing schools and students with a sibling already in the program.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in passing the program was to get the two parties to trust each other after three years of titanic partisan battles.  Unfortunately, this latent distrust meant each party wanted certain assurances written into the law.  Republicans, who are convinced that Chicago always gets more than its fair share, insisted that tax credits be granted on a geographically proportionate basis so that students throughout the state had access to scholarships.  Democrats, who were skeptical of the motives of private scholarship groups, insisted that poor students and those attending poorly performing schools be put at the front of the line ahead of families that were better off financially or academically.

For years, the school choice movement has known it would need a breakthrough in a big blue state if we were to be considered a truly bipartisan movement.  Previously, strong local efforts were made in New Jersey and New York but victory remained elusive.  So, how did the local coalition in Illinois succeed with a much smaller and less well funded advocacy effort?  From the start, the Illinois school choice coalition understood it would never have the resources and political clout of the teachers’ unions or the political power of the Republican Governor and Democratic legislative leaders. So, the local coalition borrowed a bit of strategy from the martial arts – they used their opponent’s weight against them.

The Governor came into office seeking a bold set of political reforms most of which the Democratic leaders could never accept – term limits, nonpartisan redistricting, right to work legislation, tort reform, and major changes in collective bargaining. Much further down his list of reforms, the Governor, a longtime advocate for education reform, had school choice.  Meanwhile, the Democratic legislative leaders wanted more money and fairer funding for public schools, especially Chicago, but this was something the Governor and many Republicans could not stomach.

The local coalition led by One Chance Illinois worked quietly behind the scenes to garner support from dozens of labor unions and community organizations in order to make Democratic legislators more comfortable with school choice.  Cardinal Blasé Cupich, whose feet are strongly planted in the social justice tradition of the Catholic Church, championed increased funding for students in both public and private schools.  He used his credibility with the Democratic legislative leaders and the Governor to position a large scholarship tax credit program as an acceptable price to the Democrats for better school funding and as the sole reform victory the Governor was likely to win in his first term. Thus, the weight of these two great political forces was lent to the cause of school choice – and there was nothing the teachers’ unions could do to stop it.

Hopefully, this victory for children in the big blue state of Illinois, will encourage other large Democratic states to embrace school choice – and maybe even inspire the state’s Republican neighbors in Kentucky and Missouri to give their children the same educational opportunities as the children of Illinois.