Illinois lawmakers did the right thing by not renewing Invest in Kids school choice program

In a move that’s garnered some media attention, the Illinois General Assembly opted not to renew the “Invest in Kids Act,” which provides a credit against paying the state’s income tax to individuals or businesses who fund scholarships for eligible low-income students to attend private schools.

That decision has raised the hackles of those who advocate for public funding of school choice. For instance, Paul Vallas, who just failed to win the run-off election for mayor of Chicago, castigated the General Assembly for letting this tax credit expire. Rather than eliminate the program, Vallas argued that the state should instead “seriously consider offering parental choice on a major level.”

Which begs the question, from a public policy standpoint would it be better for the state to: use taxpayer dollars to subsidize a parent’s choice to send children to a private school; or instead use those self-same taxpayer dollars to invest in the public education system? 

Certainly, parents do have and should always retain the right to send their children to any private school of their choice, either because that school is organized around the parents’ religious beliefs, or frankly for any other reason they may have. That said, if you believe public, taxpayer money spent on education should be targeted to generate the best academic outcomes for children, the data make the answer to this question clear: Diverting tax dollars to subsidize the choice to send students to a private school  is counter-productive.

Illinois — and its school children — would be far better off if the state invested the public’s money directly in creating the best possible public education system for the state.  Here’s why.

International best practice is public school investment

President George W. Bush, who was a huge supporter of school choice, commissioned what is still to this day one of the most comprehensive analyses ever completed of student achievement by school type. The study, conducted by professors Chris and Sarah Lubienski, who at that time were both at the University of Illinois, used a statistical method of analysis called “hierarchical linear modeling” to analyze data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. NAEP is the gold standard for assessing reading and math proficiency of students across the country.

This allowed the Lubienskis to do what most researchers couldn’t — control for factors ranging from the demographic composition of the student body, to the type of school attended (private, religious, charter, traditional public), when analyzing student achievement.

After controlling for all these factors, the Lubienski study found that students who attend traditional, K-12 public schools, particularly low-income and minority children, outperform their peers who attend charter schools, private schools generally, and private religious schools specifically (although among religious private schools, student achievement was lowest in conservative Christian schools and greatest in Lutheran schools).

On the other hand, investing in building the capacity of the public education system to meet the needs of all students happens to be an international best practice. According to the research of Michael Fullan, professor emeritus of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and one of the most respected authorities on education in the world, those nations that have built the capacity of their public education systems — by investing taxpayer dollars in evidence-based approaches to things like pedagogy, teacher professional development, collaboration, mentoring, and induction — have successfully enhanced the academic performance of students.

Fullan’s research is especially pertinent for Illinois, which recently enacted a school funding formula tied to the evidence of what works.

This is not to say private schools generally, or schools with a religious curriculum specifically, are bad places to send a child. But what it does say is that, if Illinois wants to get the best student achievement bang for its taxpayer buck, it should stop subsidizing the choice to send children to a private school, and instead invest public dollars where they will have the greatest positive impact on enhancing student achievement: public schools. 

Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank, and the Arthur Rubloff Professor of Public Policy at Roosevelt University.

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