Illinois lawmakers scrutinize private school scholarships without test-result data

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Critics of an Illinois program providing private school scholarships say there's no proof it improves academic achievement. But state education officials, delayed by COVID-19's school disruptions, have never reported the academic performance of participating students as required by the Invest in Kids Act, a hot issue as lawmakers reconvene Tuesday.

The five-year-old program expires at year's end. Supporters want it reauthorized before the General Assembly adjourns for the year on Thursday. Opponents say it's a drain on public education and want it ended.

The Invest in Kids Act requires participants to take the same standardized test as their public-school counterparts each spring to measure their progress and judge the program's success. Critics led by teachers' unions wonder where the numbers are.

They haven't been collected.

The coronavirus pandemic essentially shut down annual statewide student assessments in 2020 and 2021, the first two years of Invest in Kids. The first report measuring progress among program participants won't come out until early next year, education officials said.

“Unfortunately for the thousands of Invest in Kids families, it appears that Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker’s administration either failed to complete, or failed to share these assessments four years in a row, which has emboldened opponents to point to the lack of data the administration refused to collect,” Senate Minority Leader John Curran, a Republican from Downers Grove, said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Scholarships are funded from private contributions which yield a 75% state income tax credit in a program limited to $75 million in credits annually. In five years, about 40,000 needs-based scholarships have been awarded.

Reauthorization of the program never gained traction in the spring session and spilled over into the fall. Republicans and Democrats with large numbers of supportive constituents want to see Invest in Kids extended.

A scaled down program limiting annual credits awarded to $50 million has emerged and Curran said he would agree to it.

The teachers' unions and other opponents call it a voucher system that siphons money from public schools. Pritzker, a Democrat, indicated in October that he would sign reauthorization legislation, which incensed the unions. The Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association issued a joint statement that “there is no evidence that these policies are beneficial for students.”

COVID-19 closed schools in spring 2020, the first year scheduled for assessments. The virus' lingering effects a year later discouraged participation; it was so low and unrepresentative of the student population as to be too unreliable for comparison to other years, said Jaclyn Matthews, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Research group WestEd, whose contract for the analysis is $640,275, couldn't start until it had 2022 results; its inaugural report will indicate whether students improved on 2023 tests.

The unforeseen testing interruption brought about by COVID-19 doesn't sway Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, who maintains Invest in Kids is a voucher program and pointed to several national studies finding detrimental effects on students.

“There’s no reason to think that this voucher scheme would be any different than others across the country,” Montgomery said. “They take money out of the public coffers for public education, the schools that receive this money are not accountable, some of them exclude students with special needs. It's not a good use of public dollars.”

Bridget Shanahan, spokesperson for the Illinois Education Association, stood by the group's position. “There is no data,” she said.

In response to an AP public records request for assessment results, the education board said it anticipated issuing a report in February, two months after the program's expected expiration. Nothing prevents the lawmakers from restarting the program during its spring session, but there would be a disruption in scholarships.