In a disappointing turn of events, the Illinois House has rejected a school voucher bill that would have enabled up to 30,000 children to escape the underperforming Chicago public schools to attend a private school of their choice. But the story here – that a monumental school choice program was introduced by a Democratic Senator, passed through the Democrat-controlled Senate, out of the House Education Committee on a 10-1 vote, and seriously considered in the Democrat-controlled House, is something the Democrats who currently control the House and Senate in Washington should take note of.

The Chicago Tribune reports this morning:

A measure to let students in Chicago’s worst-performing and most-overcrowded elementary schools use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools was defeated in the Illinois House on Wednesday, giving teachers unions a major victory.

The landmark legislation would have made Chicago Public Schools the site of what experts said would be the nation’s largest voucher program. Up to 30,000 of the district’s 400,000 students could have left the weak schools they now attend, setting up competition for public schools.

For school choice advocates nationally, the prospect of a voucher program in Illinois was electrifying, made all the more so by the fact that it is home to national office-holders who have blocked the door for educational opportunity in the Nation’s Capitol: President Obama, Senator Durbin, and Secretary Duncan. The irony was palpable.

The school choice proposal was introduced in the Senate by Rev. Senator James Meeks, a Democrat. The proposal passed the Senate back in March, and proceeded through the House education committee with 10 committee members to 1 voting in favor of the bill.

Yesterday’s vote in the House was the last stop before heading to Governor Pat Quinn’s desk for approval. The voucher program would have enabled up to 30,000 elementary children in Chicago’s worst performing public schools to escape to a private school of their choice.

According to the Illinois Policy Institute, 37 out of the 48 schools that make up the lowest 10 percent of performers (those schools in which children would be eligible for vouchers) have been under federal and state sanctions for at least 9 successive years. Students in severely overcrowded schools (numbering approximately 20) would have also been eligible to receive a voucher under the new school choice program. Like similarly-structured programs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Cleveland, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., parents would have received a voucher (for approximately $4,000 in Chicago) and would have been responsible for the balance of what remains in private school tuition.

The Chicago Sun-Times editorialized favorably about the school choice bill, writing:

One argument is that vouchers siphon off better students from public schools, leaving the educational environment poorer. This is truly a bankrupt notion — the idea that the kids are there to service the schools. No, the schools are supposed to serve the children and when they fail to do that, Meeks rightly demands the state afford parents the opportunity of choice — something the middle class enjoys by virtue of moving to suburbs with good schools or reaching into their pockets for private education.

It is indeed a “bankrupt notion” to believe that children are at the mercy of the public school system. Unfortunately, it still seems to have currency with the Obama administration. That school choice should not just be available to those who can afford to pay private school tuition on top of the taxes they pay for public school, as Obama did in choosing to send his children to private school. Or as Senator Durbin – who crafted the original language to kill the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program – did when he enrolled his children in parochial school. Or as Education Secretary Duncan did when he purchased a home in Northern Virginia to avoid sending his child to D.C. Public Schools. When asked in an interview with Science about where his daughter attends school and how that decision was made, Duncan stated:

She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor. That was the most important thing to me. My family has given up so much so that I could have the opportunity to serve; I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.

Yet, the Education Secretary, certain members of Congress, and President Obama – despite exercising school choice for their own children – have allowed the lights to dim on the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. A program that has improved academic achievement, kept children safe and has the support of more than 70 percent of District residents. A program that at $7,500 per scholarship is half the per-pupil expenditures in the D.C. Public School System.

Who would have imagined that the land of Durbin, Duncan and Obama would have been on the threshold of enacting one of the largest voucher programs in the country? While yesterday’s decision in Illinois delivers a blow to the hopes of families trapped in underperforming public schools, it sends a strong signal to school choice proponents that the fight is well worth it and gaining ground – in the Windy City and across the country.