The Illinois House has adjourned until January 16, 2024 without passing an extension to the state’s school voucher program, which starts expiring on January 1, 2024.
In a historic move, Illinois has become the first state to step away from a contentious school voucher program, raising critical questions about the intersection of public funds, private education, and discrimination concerns. The state’s House recently adjourned without passing an extension to the voucher law, marking a significant shift in education policy.
The Rauner Shake-Up
The roots of Illinois’ voucher program can be traced back to a turbulent period for then-Governor Bruce Rauner. Following a 2017 budget setback, Rauner revamped his staff, bringing in members from the right-wing think tank, Illinois Policy Institute. In the aftermath, Rauner signed the Invest In Kids Act, a tax credit scholarship program that allowed citizens and businesses to redirect owed taxes to support private schools.
While tax credit scholarships often create the illusion that taxpayers aren’t directly funding the voucher program, the Invest In Kids tax credits left a significant budgetary gap of up to $75 million. This financial quandary forced taxpayers to choose between covering the deficit or facing cuts in essential services. The resulting concerns echoed those that led Kentucky’s supreme court to reject a similar tax credit scholarship program.
Discrimination in the Shadows
Reports of discrimination in schools participating in the Invest In Kids initiative added fuel to the controversy. Shockingly, at least 85 schools in the program, nearly 20%, had anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Moreover, only 13% of these schools reported serving special education students, with several Catholic schools maintaining policies that allowed them to reject students with disabilities.
The discriminatory policies extended to various aspects, from rejecting pregnant and parenting students to enforcing strict guidelines on students’ family lifestyles. Examples include Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi Academy, which could expel students based on their family’s music choices, and Westlake Christian Academy, which only accepted students from families adhering to specific biblical principles.
The Battle Continues
While the Illinois Policy Institute points fingers at teachers’ unions for the program’s demise, a coalition of 65 organizations united in advocating for the voucher program’s expiration. Despite supporters vowing to continue the fight, the voucher law is set to expire, marking Illinois as the first state to distance itself from an existing voucher program.
Illinois’s decision to let the school voucher program sunset reflects a broader national conversation about the implications and controversies surrounding school voucher initiatives. As the state charts new territory, the debate over the intersection of public funds, private education, and discriminatory policies is sure to persist.