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Op-Ed: Chicago’s children need sanctuary from failing schools

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Being trapped in jail by a lack of money is wrong, Illinois leaders said and the Illinois Supreme Court just upheld.

But if you are a disadvantaged child trapped in the Chicago Public Schools, then the one program that could bail you out is wrong, according to the folks who just put a new mayor in office.

Illinois’ political leaders decided low-income adults accused of crimes shouldn’t remain in jail just because they don’t have cash to put up as assurance they will appear for trial. The change is coming Sept. 18 and has police and prosecutors apoplectic.

Chicago crime is up 39% this year. Imagine what it will be after Sept. 18 as a result of Illinois being the first to experiment with eliminating cash bail.

Chicago schools are failing. Imagine what crime will be when just 14% of low-income elementary and middle school students read and 9% do math at grade level. Their adult selves will suffer as the lack of education begets lack of job opportunity begets more crime and the generational poverty continues.

But about that program freeing some of them from failing schools: Since 2017, Illinois has had a state program called Invest in Kids. It awards scholarships to low-income families so their children can attend private schools that better meet their needs. Gail Clark’s son used it to escape a Chicago public school she said was too busy handling discipline to meet her son’s academic needs.

“I wanted my son to be able to put academics first,” said Clark, whose son now attends Chicago Hope Academy. “He’s beyond grade level, and I didn’t want him to be left sitting in the back of the classroom because the school thinks, ‘Oh well, you’re doing better than 80% of your class, so you’re okay.’”

Invest in Kids lets 9,600 students gain a choice about their education, with thousands more on the waiting list. But state lawmakers under pressure from teachers unions during the spring failed to include it in the current budget and it is scheduled to sunset at the end of the year – unless those same lawmakers save it and those 9,600 low-income kids during the fall veto session.

Teachers unions and especially the Chicago Teachers Union are fighting against the program because they see it as taking money away from them and public schools. Clark argues that isn’t true.

“These are funds that wouldn’t be coming to the public schools anyway. That money is money that neither of us would see if this program died. It’s not being taken away from a public school. It’s donations – money that we network for or build relationships for. It’s coming from a completely different pool than what public schools are getting. Just because someone wants to support our students,” she said.

Even if you accept the CTU claim about taking money from public schools, the program has meant only about $50 million a year in tax credits. That’s less than 1% of what the state puts towards public schools. It’s dwarfed by the $350 million extra the state just put towards public education.

And just because a child attends private school doesn’t mean public schools lose. That child’s parents still pay taxes. The public school gets those taxes without needing to provide an education to that child. That shift was worth $3,000 a year per child – nearly a decade ago – when studied.

Giving low-income kids a chance to thrive isn’t a threat to public education. It’s a chance to say they shouldn’t be captive to a massive failure rate just because they lack cash to get out.

Brad Weisenstein is managing editor for the Illinois Policy Institute, a non-partisan public policy research organization that fosters free-market solutions.

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