Paul Vallas: By failing to extend the Invest in Kids Act, Illinois is moving to eradicate parental choice

Chalkbeat Chicago reports that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s 2024 budget, just approved in Springfield, adds another $570 million in education funding, a 6.2% increase that brings annual K-12 funding to $10.3 billion. And yet the legislature could not muster the courage to extend the modest Illinois Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program.

Illinois Education Association President Kathi Griffin, in now classic union fashion, has said that “once we get to fully funding our schools, then let’s talk about adding these types of programs.” Hogwash!


The scholarship programs, signed into law by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, costs the state $75 million, or less than 1% of annual state spending on K-12 public education. Analysis from Chalkbeat Chicago shows that since 2017 when the scholarship program was enacted, state funding for K-12 public schools has risen by $1.6 billion, with almost all of the new state funding going to districts with high percentages of students from low-income families.

An analysis of 2021 U.S. census data by Wirepoints shows that Illinois spends 20% to 60% more per pupil than its neighbors and other Midwestern states. At $18,316, Illinois ranks ninth in the nation on education funding per student. Teacher union-led efforts to block the scholarship programs renewal is a continuation of a campaign to eradicate competition to the traditional public education system that is defined by poor results, high taxes and little accountability.


What has the state to show for the increases in public school funding? State test scores that were low before COVID-19 have plummeted. The Illinois State Board of Education reports that 87% of students graduated in Illinois last year despite just 1 in 3 students taking the SAT at proficiency. Only 1 in 3 of all Illinois public school students, between third grade and eighth grade, could read at grade level on the state exam. For Black students, it’s closer to 1 in 10.

Closer to home, Chicago Public Schools spends almost $30,000 per pupil (including debt and capital payments), considerably more than the state average. The district reported record graduation rates last year. But the grim reality is that only 11% of Black and 17% of Latino CPS students, who make up almost four-fifths of enrollment, read at grade level, according to state data. This is a system failure issue, not a funding issue.

One would think that the well-documented strong performance of parochial and other private schools would compel the legislature to not only extend the successful Invest in Kids scholarship program but also make it permanent and even expand it. Not in Illinois.

Instead, state officials continue to genuflect to the self-serving whims of the same teachers unions that wreaked havoc on the lives and future prospects of our children by forcing draconian school lockdowns long after the science had concluded schools were safe to reopen. The damage to the well-being of children may never be fully repaired.

We have seen more than two dozen states since 2019 enact or expand programs that support families electing to send their children to private schools. Thirty-one states and Puerto Rico now have state subsidized private parental choice programs.

Meanwhile, Illinois moves to eliminate its very modest private school choice program. Illinois would be one of the first states in the country to eliminate an existing parental choice program — this despite strong, post-pandemic public support for school choice in Illinois.

According to a poll conducted in the spring for the Illinois Policy Institute by Echelon Insights, 62% of Illinoisans support school choice compared to 28% who oppose it. Parents especially support parental choice, 70% to 21%, while nonparents favor it 57% to 33%. Nearly 60% of voters who were asked about the Invest in Kids program expressed approval.

A recent EdChoice survey found that 77% of Illinois parents and 70% of all Illinois adults support education savings accounts, or ESAs. These government-authorized savings accounts help pay for school tuition, tutoring, online education programs, therapies for students with special needs, and textbooks or other instructional materials, and they can be used to save for future college costs.


The assault on parental choice is not limited to private schools but extends to public schools as the state has all but blocked the creation of public charter schools. In Chicago, not only are the number of public charter schools capped but so is individual school enrollment. In addition, the 114 city public charter schools are effectively barred from even renting schools closed by the Rahm Emanuel administration. Meanwhile, the district imposes unfair financial obstacles to renting other buildings. This effectively forces a majority of Chicago charter school schools to educate children in inferior and often substandard buildings while dozens of public schools remain empty or are close to empty.

According to data from CPS’ 20th day enrollment from the 2020-21 school year, charter schools educate more than 54,000 school children in Chicago. In CPS, 1 in 4 high school students and 1 in 10 elementary students attend public nonprofit charter schools. More than 98% of the attendees are students of color, and more than 85% students receive free or reduced lunch.

Severely limiting their ability to access taxpayer-funded public buildings is a blatant form of discrimination. Along with teacher union attempts to end Invest in Kids, which benefits a disproportionate number of poor minority students, this constitutes educational redlining.

Given the enormous financial resources that the state commits to its K-12 public schools and with as much as 70% of local property tax revenue going to public schools, it’s high time to seriously consider offering parental choice on a major scale.

There is nothing progressive about keeping children’s education hostage because of their ZIP codes and families’ income.

Paul Vallas ran for Chicago mayor this year and in 2019 and was previously budget director for the city and CEO of Chicago Public Schools.


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