Governor Rauner and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad voucher program

August was eventful, to say the least. White supremacists and Nazis marched on Charlottesville, proudly and publicly defending their beliefs. An eclipse darkened skies across the country. The Gulf Coast was submerged by thousand-year floods. Then, on Monday, reporters heard the most shocking news of all, straight from the Illinois Executive Mansion.

In a press release, Governor Rauner shared some thoughts on Speaker of the House Mike Madigan. That in itself wasn’t unusual; Madigan has been Rauner’s favorite piñata since the governor took office. But this time, Rauner wasn’t bashing the speaker. After the Illinois House passed a school funding bill, with a $75 million tax credit for private scholarships that Rauner requested, this was the governor’s response:

“I want to thank Speaker Madigan, Leader Durkin and their staff members for finding common ground that will reverse the inequities of our current school funding system.”

I want to thank Speaker Madigan. Not long ago, there wasn’t a soul in Illinois who expected to hear our governor say those words. After $75 million in tax credits for private scholarships were added to a, with the express purpose of securing Rauner’s signature. The credits did just that, and helped put a fairer school funding system within reach. They even pushed the governor to thank his favorite bogeyman. Just don’t look for them to help Illinois students.

To understand why, look at the tax credit’s beginnings. After Governor Rauner vetoed a bipartisan school funding bill, Cardinal Blase Kupich entered the scene, and proposed a program to support scholarships for private and parochial education. Cardinal Kupich’s motivations are easily understood; this tax credit will prop up enrollment at parochial schools, which has fallen sharply in recent years. He insists this won’t be the only effect, and maintains the credit will put more low-income students in good schools. In theory, this should raise graduation rates and help our state’s neediest families. But that’s the theory. As written, the credit seems likely to have the opposite effect, subsidizing the flight of upper-class students from public schools while doing little to help working poor families.

Why? Any explanation needs to start with the credit’s loose requirements for scholarship recipients. Through this credit, a family of four earning $73,000 – more than 4 in 5 Illinois householdswould be eligible for scholarships. Previous recipients can qualify with incomes as high as $97,000, a figure that would place them in the top 10%. To receive a scholarship, in other words, students don’t need to be poor or even middle-class. To put it to use, meanwhile, a family would need to cover the difference between a $5,000 scholarship and private-school tuition – $12,273 at the average high school. With that price tag, a quarter of households couldn’t cover a year’s tuition, let alone four. The families that can, by and large, aren’t the working poor this credit is supposed to help. They’re middle-class and upper-class suburbanites, and most live in districts with well-funded public schools.

Even if the credit was more generous, it’s unlikely most low-income students would benefit. For a case in point, look no further than Chicago. In 2013, the Board of Education closed 47 elementary schools and steered returning students to higher-performing “welcoming schools.” 39% of students never made it to a welcoming school; parents prioritized proximity and convenience over performance, and many enrolled their children at schools closer to home. Single or working poor parents often had no choice; early-morning commutes or safety concerns ruled out long detours to a faraway school.

Last but not least, even when large numbers of students do take part in voucher programs – which this tax credit is, in all but name – the results aren’t pretty. Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and Washington D.C. have all put similar programs in place. In every case, the research shows, participants did worse than their peers who stayed in public schools. In Michigan, a program backed by Betsy DeVos fared so poorly that charter advocates do their best to avoid the subject. There’s no reason to believe the results will be different in Illinois; the Chicago students Governor Rauner wants to steer away from their “failing” public schools are outperforming their peers nationwide.

If this seems like bad policy, that’s because it is. That was never Governor Rauner’s concern. Look at the politics, and this move isn’t hard to understand. The primary beneficiaries of this voucher program – well-off voters outside Chicago – happen to form Rauner’s base of support. After two years of inaction and gridlock in Springfield, Rauner has seized on this lone bill as evidence that he’s not the do-nothing governor our state knows all too well. Never mind that he’s spent two years playing Chicago and the rest of the state against each other; Rauner can show that he extracted a concession from Mike Madigan. This, in turn, sets him up to argue that our state can serve their best interests while ignoring Chicago’s. Rauner is betting that voters downstate, whose schools Rauner just held hostage, will focus on their distaste for Chicago and its politicians instead of focusing on their common interests. It’s risky, but the governor is taking his chances.

There you have it. Politics over policy. Governor Rauner just held a crucial school funding bill hostage to push for an ineffective and costly voucher plan written with reelection, not schools, in mind. This is the same man who spent the last two years blaming ineffective government programs for our state’s budget crisis. Since the legislature finally passed a budget over his veto in July, he seems to have warmed to the idea of spending taxpayer money – as long as it benefits his political supporters. Along the way, Rauner managed to fire much of his staff, oust their newly minted replacements weeks later, and go from trashing Speaker Madigan to singing his praises. It’s an impressively quick about-face; few states are blessed with a governor dynamic enough to change his views, staff, and style in the space of a month.

Most voters would agree this rare talent has earned Governor Rauner a long break from politics. The bad news is that he has other ideas. The good news is that 2018 is just around the corner, and voters will soon have a chance to judge Rauner’s performance. After the governor’s recent antics, I trust teachers, parents, and students have seen enough to give him a well-deserved failing grade. Our job as Democrats is to give voters another option, so they have a Democrat to vote for as well as a governor to vote against. If we can do that – and it won’t be easy – we’ll soon see Rauner gone, replaced by a governor who’ll let public schools do their job and let students learn.

Photo Credit: seiuhcilin

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