Illinois Dem betting on proposal to give students a choice

By   /   January 16, 2013  /   No Comments

By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog

SPRINGFIELD — What’s it going to take to give at least some kids in Illinois a choice in where they go to school? Lottery tickets, one Chicago Democrat says.

State Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, has introduced legislation that would use nearly $6 million from the Illinois lottery to give 1,000 students a “scholarship” to pay for private school.

SCRATCH AND LEARN: Ford wants “scholarships” for school choice in Illinois.

Illinois’ lottery was sold to lawmakers in the 1980s as a way to “save” public education. Illinois’ education budget was nearly $4 billion last year, and the lottery pumped about $600 million into the state’s  common school fund. Ford wants $6 million for scholarships.

“In one zip code in Chicago alone there is nearly $30 million in ticket sales,” Ford said. “Why don’t we take some of that and use it to give kids in that area a choice.”

The Illinois Lottery’s top 20 zip codes for ticket sales are all in Chicago, Ford said, mainly in poorer neighborhoods clustered on the city’s south and west sides.

Ford is finding some unlikely backers, and some unusual opponents.

John Russell, who heads the school choice group Freedom to Learn Illinois, said Ford’s plan will put the Democrat at odds with Chicago’s teachers union.

“Teachers — most teachers — care about their kids, but teachers unions only care about the union,” Russell said.

Russell said because tension remains between the Chicago Teachers’ Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Ford’s legislation may find more supporters.

Illinois’ last serious attempt at school choice failed in 2010 when the Illinois House voted down a plan to allow students in poor-performing schools to choose another school.

Russell said Illinois’ powerful teachers unions used their muscle to kill that legislation.

The Illinois Education Association, one of the state’s largest teachers’ unions, did not respond to call for this story.

Ford said he does not think that Illinois is ready for a full school-choice program, which is why his legislation is for “scholarships.”

“Illinois OK’d civil unions because they were called civil unions, not gay marriage,” Ford added. “The value of a scholarship is the same. It’s just not called a voucher.”

Ford’s proposal would give 1,000 students in Chicago $6,000 each for tuition at a private school. The money would follow the child through eighth grade.

The $6,000 is just below Illinois’ required per-pupil public school funding level of $6,119. But Mary Fergus of the Illinois State Board of Education said state budget cuts have meant that few local schools receive the full $6,119.

Ford said he is confident he can get his legislation to a vote this spring, but he’s not ready to say school choice will happen in Illinois.

“We have to convince individual lawmakers that we need innovative ways to educate our kids,” Ford said.

Russell said Ford may have a shot at getting his school choice legislation approved, in part because of the spat between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s teachers’ union.

BAD BLOOD: Chicago’s teachers’ union is still upset about plans to close schools and re-open them as charters.

The Chicago Teachers Union walked out of classrooms at the beginning of the current school year in a fight over pay and how teachers are evaluated.

The union is still bickering with Emanuel over the mayor’s desire to close a number of schools in Chicago, and possibly turn them into charter schools.

Ford said it’s too early to tell what impact that fight will have on his battle to get school choice through the Legislature in Springfield.

You can contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org.

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