Chicago witnessed one small victory for urban school reform and parental choice yesterday as the Illinois State Senate voted 33-20 to approve a pilot voucher program for low-income Chicago students currently attending the city’s worst performing schools. The School Choice Act, sponsored by Democrat James Meeks, provides children in Kindergarten through 8th grade state-funded vouchers to attend a private or parochial school in the city. Senator Meeks testified to the voucher program’s importance in providing low-income students a way out of the underperforming Chicago public schools.

“‘By passing this bill, we’ll give 22,000 kids an opportunity to have a choice on whether or not they’ll continue in their failing school or go to another non-public school within the city of Chicago. Just as we came up with and passed charter schools to help children, now is an opportunity to pass this bill so we can help more children escape the dismal realities of Chicago’s public schools,’ Meeks said.”

The Senate bill requires that the voucher amount be equal either to the average spending per public school student or equal to an enrolled student’s private school tuition costs, which ever is lower. Illinois currently spends an average $6,119 per public school student; but since the current average elementary parochial school only costs $3,234, the average per-pupil voucher amount will likely be lower than average per-pupil expenditure in public schools. If the bill is passed by the Illinois House, K-8 students currently attending a school ranked in the lowest 10 percent of the Chicago School District schools could receive vouchers for the 2011-12 school year, with enrolled students’ academic progress monitored for the following three years of the pilot program. If the voucher system is a success, Meeks hopes the program will expand to allow low-income students across the state a chance to escape failing schools and experience the socioeconomic opportunities afforded by a quality education.

Despite the voucher program’s apparent savings to taxpayers and assistance for low-income students, the Chicago Teachers’ Union was ready with routine complaints that the program will drain resources and talent from the city’s public schools. A union spokesperson stated that, “It will endanger schools that are already struggling.” However, allowing students and families to choose among public and private schools has the potential to actually assist public education. Empirical studies have demonstrated that there is academic improvement within public schools as a result of the competitive pressure placed on those systems by school choice programs.

If vouchers become a reality in Chicago, they will provide tens of thousands of families the opportunity to escape the underperforming public schools and pursue an educational path that best suits their needs.

Sarah Torre currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: