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Public school students outperformed tax credit scholarship recipients at private schools, report says

Sarah Macaraeg, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

Elementary students who received scholarships through Illinois’ controversial Invest in Kids tax credit program lagged in reading and math proficiency, on state standardized tests, compared to public school students, according to a new report submitted to the Illinois State Board of Education Friday.

Conducted by the nonprofit research agency WestEd, the 14-month study contrasts the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR) reading and math scores of scholarship recipients in grades 3-8, with their public school peers. In 2022 and 2023, Invest in Kids recipients fared worse in both subjects. At the high school level, researchers juxtaposed students’ SAT performance, with mixed results.

The report, which the 2017 Invest in Kids Act mandated ISBE to create, comes in the wake of fierce debate over the merits of continuing the program past its scheduled Dec. 31, 2023 end date. Lawmakers allowed the program to sunset – bucking a national trend that’s seen several states expand or create voucher programs in recent years.

Invest in Kids supporters argued the program gave students who couldn’t otherwise access private schools a shot at a better education. Opponents said it was a diversion of tax dollars to bolster theological-based programs that exclude certain students – while Illinois continues to fall short of the state funding it’s determined public schools are owed.

School culture and special education

Along with student performance on standardized tests, the WestEd study aims to assess “how private schools are organized to support students’ success,” drawing on a total of around 1,000 survey responses from students, parents and educators and interviews at 10 schools. Faith-based schools comprise the vast majority of schools that received Invest in Kids funds, according to the Dept of Revenue’s most recent annual report on the program. Researchers found that faith is “a critical organizing element in school culture, curricula, and interpersonal relationships,” according to the study. Just over 8 percent of teachers surveyed said they worked at an independent private school without a religious affiliation.

 

In some schools, researchers said teachers see prayer as a way to connect with students and address disruptive behavior, while principals stressed the need for parents to align with their school’s mission and values, according to the study, which notes that one school encourages families to sign statements of faith.

Invest in Kids participants mostly praised administrators and teachers for cultivating trusting school environments that welcome parent involvement and feel safe, according to the study. However, several people who spoke with researchers shared concerns that their schools could not meet diverse learners’ needs. (State and federal laws that protect the right of students with disabilities to a public education don’t similarly apply to private schools).

“This girl did not belong…She had extreme behavioral issues…Like it’s not that we don’t want that child or it’s not like we’re un-Christian, but it’s like we don’t have the resources for it…We don’t have a special ed program or a behavioral program,” said a parent at one of ten schools researchers visited, according to the study which does not name participants.

WestEd noted it doesn’t have data on how many schools, beyond those researchers visited, that share similar concerns. But the sentiment was echoed during parent interviews at another private school researchers wrote. “Some kids who have special needs function here. But some kids, with their needs—I don’t know,” said another parent included in the study.

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