PI Original Micah Maidenberg Monday March 14th, 2011, 2:39pm

Vouchers Bubble Up Again In Springfield

What are the similarities between this year's vouchers push for CPS and last year's? The broader Springfield context and a new mayor in Chicago.

The voucher battle is bubbling up once again in Springfield. Last week, the Senate Education Committee voted 7-3 to approve SB 1932, legislation that would authorize carving out what it calls a pilot program for vouchers within the Chicago Public Schools system.

There are some major similarities and differences between the bill and its context, and what happened with vouchers about a year in Springfield.

SB 1932 seeks to allow parents of kindergarten through 8th grade students attending CPS schools in the lowest 10 percent in terms of meeting or exceeding Illinois Standards Achievement Test criteria to apply for a voucher and use it to pay for private school tuition. Students who attend the "most severely overcrowded" 5 percent of schools in CPS would also be eligible to apply for a voucher. "A qualifying pupil," the legislation reads, "shall be entitled to enroll at and attend any participating nonpublic school of his or her choice."

Sponsored by State Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine), the bill mirrors the vouchers proposal State Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago) put on the table about a year ago. No specific numbers of student and costs are detailed in SB 1932, but Meeks' bill, which passed the Senate but ultimately failed in the House, would have given up to 30,000 CPS students a voucher worth about $3,700.

The battle lines over this new effort to implement a voucher system in Chicago have a familiar feel. State Schools News Service's Jim Broadway reports that the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, are expressing support, while a long list of stakeholders have come out against the legislation. "The Illinois State Board of Education, the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, regional groups such as ED-RED (a suburban schools organization) and various labor and community organizations signed in against SB 1932," Broadway writes.

As SB 1932 starts to move through the General Assembly, skeptical legislators will no doubt decry a plan that would divert scarce education dollars toward private institutions. And if discussions turn toward student achievement, they'll likely point north -- to Milwaukee. The Wisconsin city first rolled out a voucher program in the mid-1990s, but a comprehensive report released in 2009 found that students who took vouchers did not achieve math or reading growth at statistically higher rate than their peers in public schools. (Tribune columnists Eric Zorn and Dennis Byrne offered lists of pro and con voucher links in February 2010.) During last year's vouchers debate in Springfield, critics also pointed out that there is no guarantee that private schools must accept voucher-holders and questioned whether there are enough openings for them in the city.

There are at least two things that are different about this year's voucher debate, however.

The first has to do with the general context in Springfield. A year back, the General Assembly was in the midst of a full-throated battle about government spending and revenue, and how Illinois funds its public schools was a big part of those discussions.

HB 174, Meeks' tax reform package, was still on the table back then; it would have hiked the state's income tax to 5 percent while expanding the personal exemption, doubling the state property tax credit, and tripling the Earned Income Tax Credit, and shifted money toward more education spending to ease the inequities in school funding. Meeks has long called for school funding reform, leading high-profile demonstrations at New Tier High School in Winnetka and outside of Wrigley Field to get the point across in 2008.

No one's talking about big changes to education funding now following the tax deal Democratic members of the General Assembly struck in January and the state's ongoing budget problems. The Quinn administration's FY12 budget (PDF) proposes saving money through school district consolidation, decreasing transportation subsidies, and cutting administrative costs. It does propose increasing state spending on students by $150 over the current minimum per-pupil level of $6,119, a boost which will not get Illinois remotely close to the minimum $8,360 per-pupil level the Education Funding Advisory Board reccommended in a recent report (PDF) for FY12.

The other difference between this year and last is that Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel opposes vouchers. "In the case of vouchers, I believe in school choice, but I believe that given limited taxpayer dollars we should be encouraging school choice through the public schools system," Emanuel wrote in a Fox Chicago questionnaire. Still, plenty could change in the school voucher debate between now and Emanuel's inauguration on May 16.

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