Public Schools

For the first time ever, a state is letting a school voucher program expire

  Mary Cugini

This month, Illinois became the first state in the country to end a private school voucher program. The Illinois House of Representatives decided not to renew the voucher program before it expires in January 2024, meaning it will sunset starting in the new year. The bill to keep the program alive never even made it to the House floor.

This is a huge win for public schools in Illinois. Since the voucher program began in 2017, it has drained $250 million of taxpayer dollars from the state’s General Revenue Fund. Private school vouchers undermine public schools by siphoning desperately needed resources away from public schools, which accept all students, to fund the education of a few, select voucher students. Public funds must be for public schools that serve all kids.

The principle of church-state separation also wins. In the last school year alone, 95% of the Illinois schools that took vouchers were religious. Ending the program stops the use of taxpayer money primarily to fund religious education.

Voucher program funded discrimination

In addition, the voucher program has sent taxpayer dollars to schools that discriminate. Illinois Families for Public Schools discovered that 20% of participating schools have anti-LGBTQ+ policies. Other troubling findings included:

  • Only 13% of private schools in the voucher program last year reported that they served any special education students. The majority of schools in the program are Catholic schools, and four of six Catholic dioceses in Illinois have policies that say schools may refuse to accommodate students with disabilities.
  • Policies that discriminate against pregnant and parenting students, students who have had an abortion, English-language learners, students with disabilities, undocumented students, and more are widespread in Illinois voucher schools as well.

Furthermore, the program lacks accountability. Even though the schools participating in the voucher program are required to administer state tests to students receiving vouchers annually, more than five years into the program, no reporting on test scores has ever been released. This also means there is no evidence this program is helping students learn.

‘Not a good use of public dollars’

As Dan Montgomery, the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, put it, “There’s no reason to think that this voucher scheme would be any different than others across the country. They take money out of the public coffers for public education. The schools that receive this money are not accountable – some of them exclude students with special needs. It’s not a good use of public dollars.”

We know that Montgomery is right. Evidence from across the country proves that vouchers don’t work: They don’t improve student achievement, lack accountability, fund discrimination, can exacerbate racial segregation and harm religious freedom.

That’s why AU proudly joined a diverse coalition of over 65 local, state and national organizations to urge the Illinois General Assembly to let this voucher program sunset as planned.

Americans United remains determined to fight private school vouchers across the country and keep public funds in public schools. You can join us in this fight too: act now to remind your state lawmakers that they should not drain money away from public schools through private school vouchers.

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