School choice is on the march in Illinois. And if the Rev. Senator James Meeks (D-15) has his way, 22,000 children stand to gain a lifeline out of failing public schools in the Prairie State. Senator Meeks introduced the school choice bill, which passed out of the Senate in March. Last Thursday, the Illinois House Executive Committee approved the measure, and the legislation now awaits action any day in the full House. A press release from the Illinois Policy Institute lauded the school choice bill:

“‘The highest-quality research is clear on two points’, said Collin Hitt, Director of Education Policy for the Illinois Policy Institute. ‘School vouchers improve education for students who use them, and the resulting competition improves the performance of surrounding public schools. This is bold policy, but it can change the course of education in Chicago. If the Illinois House passes this legislation, families will have a better choice of schools, public schools will compete for students and improve. This can all be accomplished at no additional cost to taxpayers or public education’.”

The Chicago Sun-Times also came out in favor of the bi-partisan measure.

“Studies in Milwaukee, Charlotte, New York and Washington, D.C., documented gains for voucher students. Reading and math scores improved for African-American pupils on vouchers in New York, Washington and Dayton, research showed.

”What’s more, competition produced by voucher programs prompts improvement in public schools, according to research on programs in Florida, Milwaukee and San Antonio… Meeks’ bill is a modest one. It would offer a lifeboat to 22,000 kids drowning in Chicago’s lowest-performing elementary schools, 37 of them under state or federal sanctions for at least nine years. If government can’t provide good schools for these kids, politicians, unions and educrats shouldn’t block the private school door offering them hope of a better life.” (Emphasis added.)

In cities where voucher programs have been in operation, children have benefited significantly. Students in the now embattled D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (D.C. OSP) have made statistically significant gains in reading achievement equivalent to 3.7 months in additional learning. Extrapolate that out over the lifetime of a child’s educational career, and that’s nearly two full years in additional reading achievement. And while children are making tremendous academic gains, they are also safer and their parents are happier.

Ironically perhaps, Illinois’ landmark school choice language is making its way through the state represented in the U.S. Senate by Richard Durbin (D-IL), author of language now in law that could spell the end the successful D.C. OSP. While Senator Durbin may have been able to thwart the chance for a promising educational future for low-income District children for the time being, the horizon has the potential to get much brighter for children in his home state.

We know what works in education: empowering parents with the ability to choose the best school for their child. School choice puts families in the driver’s seat and holds schools accountable to parents. For 22,000 low-income families in Illinois, they could soon hold the key to their children’s educational future.