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Does Trump Give Illinois Lawmakers A Better Opportunity For School Choice Programs?

Many local politicians are wondering what President Donald Trump's cabinet selections will mean for their constituents -- from public housing, to health, to education.

In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner has publicly supported Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, who said she supports school choice programs that allow public money to flow to private schools and for-profit charters.

Proposals to create these kinds of school choice programs have never gotten much traction in Illinois. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced bills recently that could allow families to use public money to send their children to private schools.

Republican State Rep. Jeanne Ives, who represents parts of Wheaton, Naperville and Carol Stream, said she introduced school choice bills in the past that have been stymied by Democrats and some Republicans. 

“They’re a bunch of hypocrites,” Ives said. “A number of them are the beneficiaries of a private school education, including (House Speaker) Mike Madigan himself, and yet they deny it, deny it, deny it to the people who can least afford to fight for it themselves.”

She introduced a school choice bill this session that would allow students attending the lowest performing 10 percent of schools to get a voucher to attend a private school of their choosing.

It’s not that unlike a bill introduced by Democratic State Rep. LaShawn Ford, whose district on the West Side of Chicago is very different than the fairly well-off suburbs that Ives represents.

“I represent the Austin community, an area where several schools have been closed and several schools are on academic probation,” Ford said. 

Ford, a former teacher who has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union, said the bill he recently introduced would create a private school scholarship fund using state lottery money.

“I have no choice but to look for other choices for the children I represent in the Austin community,” he said. “Do we sit idly by and say, ‘Well we’re going to just keep working on this, and all those students and families that we’re not meeting your needs, you just keep going to the same schools and we’ll get it right one day even though you will be gone and we failed you?’ ”

In this Dec. 4, 2012 file photo, Illinois state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, is seen on the House floor at the state Capitol in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman/AP)

Both Ford and Ives said they see a window of opportunity right now in Illinois. 

That’s because it’s no secret Rauner would like to expand school choice. He’s long supported charter schools -- which are publicly funded, but privately run -- and a couple of his most recent appointments to the state board of education have ties to charters. 

The federal government is also poised to promote expanding school choice to the private sector. Trump and his pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, have indicated they will set aside billions of dollars for states with school choice programs that allow public money to flow to private schools.

“Illinois is really good at trying to grab federal money,” Ives said. “If the federal government were to come out and say, ‘Look, we’ve got this pot of money, but it’s only going to go to states that institute a voucher program,’ then we have a fighting chance. That's where it’s got to come from because we’re so desperate for money in this state.”

Despite this momentum, Ives is realistic about the chances of her bill even passing out of committee. 

“I filed it again so that we had it ready,” she said. “It could be tweaked if the conversation would ever go that way. Do I think it’s even going to get a hearing? No.”

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said that’s how it should be. Like many lawmakers, he thinks school choice is not the most pressing issue facing Illinois when it comes to education. 

“We don’t even fund public schools like 48 other states; they do a better job with state dollars,” he said. “Why don’t we address that first?”

Lawmakers have come close to changing the school funding formula several times in the last few years. A bipartisan group of 25 legislators is expected to release recommendations for a new formula for distributing school money by Feb. 1.

Andrew Broy, with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, echoed Montgomery in saying nothing is going to happen to expand school choice until lawmakers and Rauner do something with school funding and the state budget.

“I think we’re still dug in between the Speaker of the House and the Governor on a political battle, and what they’ve been dealing with mainly are big ticket fiscal items,” Broy said. 

He said there’s a long way to go between what Trump and DeVos might push for and what Illinois lawmakers might actually choose to do.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.

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