Ep 14: IL’s New School Choice Program with Jason Bedrick & Robert Enlow

September 12, 2017

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our President and CEO Robert Enlow talks with Director of Policy Jason Bedrick about Illinois’s recently-enacted Invest in Kids Program. They cover how the program works and who it serves, as well as the politics of passing a tax-credit scholarship bill in such a tough state. Listen to get all the details, including a breakdown of weaknesses in the program and our hopes for its future.

Robert Enlow: Hi, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m Robert Enlow, President and CEO of EdChoice. I’m here today with Jason Bedrick, our director of policy, to talk about Illinois’ new school choice program. Welcome, Jason.

Jason Bedrick : Thank you for having me.

Robert Enlow: Jason, let’s first describe this program to our listeners. What type of program is it, and how does it work, and how many kids to you think will be eligible statewide?

Jason Bedrick: It’s a tax-credit scholarship program, which means that individual and corporate taxpayers can make contributions to nonprofit scholarship organizations for which they get a 75 percent tax credit. So if they donated $1,000 they would have a credit on their taxes for $750. Those scholarship organizations then help fund low-income students attend the school of their choice. The full program has $75 million in tax credits, so that will produce $100 million in scholarship funds.

It’s not clear how much money each student is going to get yet. Most can get up to around $13,000, but because the average K–8 tuition is only about $5,000, we expect that many will get much less. This could serve anywhere between about 5,000 to 20,000 students in the next year.

Robert Enlow: That’s great. Now, is it only low-income families that are eligible or is it a broader section of society?

Jason Bedrick: It’s up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, so that’s around the $75,000 (for a family of four) range, and then it goes up to … Once you’re in the program a family’s income can grow up to about 400 percent of the federal poverty line, so that’s about $98,000 per family (of four) per year. But low-income families get priority. So if there’s over-subscription, then only the low-income families will get scholarships first before helping everybody else.

Robert Enlow: That’s pretty interesting. So $75,000 for a family of four is what I’m guessing. Basically, that’s a teacher and a cop potentially.

Jason Bedrick: That’s right.

Robert Enlow: It’s certainly middle-income America, which would be really interesting, middle- and low-income America. That’s great to hear.

Now, before we get much deeper into analyzing this program, which is called the “Invest In Kids” program, how about let’s discuss a little bit of Illinois’ history with school choice and how the program came to be in 2017. Why do you think it’s taken so long to get such a substantial program in a state like Illinois, where there’s such high need, and what do you think made this year different?

Jason Bedrick: Illinois has always been a tough nut to crack. The unions are very very powerful there. So it just hasn’t been high on the agenda. But this year was different because there was a fight between a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature over school funding. There was a real game of chicken going on for a long time. The governor really wanted pension reform. The number one thing that the speaker of the house did not want to give was pension reform.

So the way that both sides compromised was they wouldn’t do the pension reform this time, but they would enact a program that would give more opportunities for those families who are most in need to choose a school that works best for them. That ended up being the tax-credit scholarship program that ended up in the final version of the bill, which was signed last week.

Robert Enlow: It’s very interesting. Illinois has had a long history with school choice. It’s been one of the program … states that had what we call a “personal tax credit” for families if they spent money on private education for a long time, although that wasn’t a very large amount of money they could claim back. It has had such a unique environment of Chicago centric charter schools and efforts with school choice, but nothing has gotten past it until this year. I think you’re right. There’s this sense of it was the right person and people at the right place with the right bill. If it wasn’t a school funding bill, it might not have happened. If it wasn’t Rauner and Madigan in the legislature, then it might not have happened. It just goes to show you how things can come together to make something happen.

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of this. What do you think is good about the bill and what do you think is bad about the program?

Jason Bedrick: I think the program itself is obviously a huge step in the right direction, but it is relatively limited. $100 million sounds like a lot of money, but they’re spending tens of billions of dollars on their public school system. This program is really only going to help maybe a 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the students in the state. It’s relatively small. It’s also just a pilot program. It phases out. There’s a sunset clause. After five years, it disappears unless it’s reenacted.

One provision that I think is particularly troubling is that they impose the state test. Now, a lot of people think that testing is important for accountability. The right balance when it comes to accountability is nationally norm-referenced tests. What that means is a test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or the SAT 10, that measures students’ learning across the nation, but allows the school to choose from a menu of different tests. When you’re imposing one single test that’s aligned with the state standards, what you’re essentially doing is imposing the state curriculum. If that’s what parents want, they have thousands of choices around the state to go to any public school that already does that.

But if they’re looking for something else, it doesn’t make sense that you’re going to impose the same accountability regime on all of the other schools that are trying to do other different things. Because when their students are taking this test, if they’re not teaching the state curriculum, they’re going to be at a disadvantage. For example, when they imposed Common Core in California, you had a lot of schools that had been teaching algebra in eighth grade, but algebra isn’t tested on Common Core until ninth grade. So all of those schools decided to shift when they were teaching algebra because otherwise their students would be tested on material that they hadn’t seen in over a year. They would be at a disadvantage. The school would look bad, and so the state standards drove the curriculum.

We don’t want to see that in the private sector, so what a lot of states have done is impose nationally norm-referenced tests, again, giving schools more autonomy and flexibility while at the same time providing parents with information to help them make informed choices for their children.

Robert Enlow: This is one of the trade-offs that we see all the time. Frankly, I’m going to make a personal comment here about this. We often see ourselves in a situation where we are trading off of the idea of school autonomy for this idea of being able to compare apples to apples, which sort of doesn’t really make sense, because parents and kids are different across the spectrum.

Moreover, I think one of the interesting things about this is Mike McShane, currently at the Show-Me Institute and formerly at AEI, used to say and still does, “There are three types of school choice, things that school choice could do right for educational choice. One, a program can fill existing seats and existing schools. Two, it could fill existing seats and add new seats in existing schools. And three, it could create new schools.”

For me one of weaknesses of this program is that the very most this program will do was fill some seats in existing schools. That may be great for the parents, and we’re supportive of that, but that’s really not changing a dynamic of the system that’s in deep trouble, particularly in Chicago. That leads me to ask you, Jason, from EdChoices’ philosophy about systemic reform and your philosophy about systemic reform, how do you think the Illinois legislature should improve their program and do you actually think they will?

Jason Bedrick: In terms of whether I think they will, that I have no idea. Again, it’s amazing, practically a miracle that they adopted this in the first place. After five years, I find it hard to believe when thousands of low-income families are benefitting from the program that they would allow it to just disappear. We’ve never seen a school choice program that was ever repealed legislatively, so I do expect it to continue. But whether it’s going to scale up or not, I don’t know, but I think you hit the nail on the head. This is only going to fill empty seats.

That’s great for those students who are going to benefit from it, but in terms of talking about real systemic change, I would be looking at other states like Arizona and Florida and Indiana of the leadership on that, not necessarily Illinois at least not at this point. Not until we see the success in other states and those states that are lagging behind begin to demand it. But I would say again, at the very least I do expect that the predictions of doom and gloom and that the sky is going to fall that we heard in Illinois and that we heard in the other 17 states that have passed credit programs and a dozen or so states that have voucher programs or ESAs, these doom and gloom predictions never come to pass.

People, I think legislators in particular, after many years of having a program operating, having heard all the negative things that were predicted and then watching with their own eyes that actually those things don’t happen. That the public schools are not gutted, that they’re not collapsing, and that as a matter of fact research shows that increased choice and competition raises all boats, that they’re going to say, “You know what; this program is helping kids. It’s not hurting anybody. We should continue it.”

Robert Enlow: I think that’s right, and I hope so. In fact, I hope that Illinois becomes as successful as Florida and getting parents involved in the process of sharing their stories. In our experience, and certainly in your experience, once a program is passed people who oppose the idea don’t just run away and hide. They often come out in droves and get even angrier or get more involved.

What kind of steps do you think the opponents of educational choice will take in Illinois, and do what you foresee happening?

Jason Bedrick: Well, right now they’re banging their spoons in their highchair like they usually do and making really outrageous claims. There was somebody I believe from a union this past week that said, “This is like putting a ticking time bomb on a school bus.” Really ridiculous things. I hope that more mature policymakers recognize this sort of childish and incendiary rhetoric for what it is.

In most states, I would say that I would expect the next step to be a legal challenge. But the thing is, first of all, no legal challenge against the tax-credit scholarship program has ever been successful. Again, there’s 18 states that have it. There have been unanimous, or at least very strong decisions, in a whole bunch of state supreme courts, and a very strong decision from the U.S. Supreme Court about the constitutionality of these programs, because they’re not dealing with public funds. So they tend not to run afoul of the all the Blaine amendments, which in many states prohibit public funding from reaching religious schools.

That said, in Illinois there’s another reason to believe that they’re not going to file a legal challenge. Not only have they been unsuccessful across many states, but you mentioned before that Illinois already has a personal tax credit, and state courts already ruled years ago in Toney v. Bower that those tax credits, again, are private funds. That the funds never reach the public treasury, they don’t enter in the tax collector’s hand, therefore there are no constitutional implications.

Normally, I would expect a lawsuit. Here I don’t. In this case, I think what they’re going to do is they’re just going to mobilize legislatively to try and block the reauthorization in five years.

Robert Enlow: That’s great news that we don’t see a legal challenge, at least we don’t think one can work or one is around. Chicago has often been called a very unique political city. If you look at the history of Chicago and many of things that have gone on there, one could argue that there’s a lot of dirty tricks, and maybe dirty tricks started in Chicago, really political dirty tricks.

What kind of things do you think the opponents could do to really make this program suffer in a much more political way, in terms of mobilizing of course? I think it’s important that our listeners know that there have been efforts in other states to try and make schools look bad or to intimidate parents. Do you foresee this kind of thing happening in Illinois possibly?

Jason Bedrick: Quite possibly. I’m not sure what tactics they’re going to pull out. I think in this case they have a strong legislative advantage just because … With any bill, there are many veto-points then there are opportunities to advance legislation. It’s a lot easier to block legislation and passed legislation because they have the sunset clause. It’s going to have to pass both chambers and be signed by the governor. All they have to do is block it in one committee or prevent it from coming to a vote on the floor of one house, and they will have effectively stopped it.

So certainly they have the momentum, or inertia to some extent, on their side. It’s going to be to parents that are benefiting from the program and want to benefit from the program to demand of their legislators that they do bring these bills up for a vote in five years and do push it forward.

Robert Enlow: That’s awesome. I really appreciate that. All right Jason, to conclude, in your experience, I want to get to one simple question. If you could describe your feelings about school choice or the future of educational choice in Illinois right now in one word, just one word, what would that be?

Jason Bedrick: Hopeful.

Robert Enlow: I think that’s a good word. That’s what we should all be, hopeful, because there’s lots of movements still happening about educational choice around the country, not only in Illinois but in places like Iowa, New Hampshire. Arizona’s still got challenges they’re working on. There’s lots of movement. As our readers or listeners probably know, there are 30 states and D.C., or 29 states and D.C., that are operating 62 school choice programs. So there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful.

I want to thank everyone again for listening. We want you to please follow, and subscribe to our podcast if you’d like to hear more EdChoice Chats. Please take care, and have a good day.