Students in Chicago’s lowest-performing public schools could soon have a new choice of schools if the General Assembly adopts a new program proposed by Rev. Senator James Meeks. Senate Bill 2494 would provide school vouchers to students in the bottom-performing ten percent of Chicago public elementary schools, giving those students the opportunity to attend area private schools if their parents so choose.
Roughly 22,000 students attend the 48 elementary schools that are currently Chicago’s lowest performers on state assessment tests. Of those schools, 37 have been under state or federal sanctions for 9 consecutive years or more, meaning that existing school improvement strategies are not working – even in an era where accountability policies and supplemental services have been expanded greatly.
The legislation proposed by Senator Meeks mirrors policies that have been adopted in several cities and states throughout the country. Those programs have benefited the students who use vouchers—and, in an even more encouraging finding, research shows that these programs have improved public school performance as well.
Nineteen studies have been conducted in cities and states where school voucher programs have been created. Eighteen of them find significant improvement in public school performance, suggesting that competition works. Giving parents a choice means giving schools a new incentive to improve—namely, the fact that these parents can take their students and the dollars to support their education elsewhere.
The voucher program that most closely resembles the one proposed in Senate Bill 2494 is the “A+” school choice program in Florida. For years Florida implemented strong central testing and accountability measures, as Illinois and Chicago Public Schools have attempted to do. Those actions did not significantly improve its worst public schools, so Florida created a newer provision stating that students in schools that receive a “failing grade” two years in a row will be eligible for school vouchers. Ten studies have since been conducted on the impact of the new policy on public school performance, and all of them have found that providing school vouchers has helped improve Florida’s worst public schools.
Listed in the table in the document below (and which you can download here) is every study of the impact that school voucher programs have had on public schools. Rarely in social science are the findings so consistent: students benefit merely from having the option to use a voucher – even if they remain in public schools – because the competition for students has forced those schools to improve.