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LAURA WASHINGTON: ‘Back-door’ voucher for private schools a great idea

Cardinal Blase Cupich. | Brian Jackson / Sun-Times

As the Chicago Public Schools open on Tuesday, I look forward to watching the little girls in their tight, gleaming pigtails and the little boys with sharp new haircuts line up for the bell.

There may soon be fewer pigtails and haircuts in those lines, thanks to a controversial tuition tax credit, part of Senate Bill 1947, just approved by the Illinois General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.


The credit will go to taxpayers who contribute to scholarships for low- and middle-income students attending private schools. Donors will be credited for 75 cents for every dollar they donate.

Proponents of the new policy, from Rauner to Cardinal Blase Cupich, say it ensures school choice for those who need it most. Critics, like the Chicago Teachers Union, say it’s a “back-door” voucher program that will sap funding for public schools.

The groundbreaking compromise will reportedly bring up to $450 million in new funds to CPS, along with some desperately-needed stability.

As a lifelong ally of public education, I say that’s a rare win-win — for all of our kids. They all deserve as much as they can get, and much more.

The tax credit means that thousands of children and families who want more from their schools can afford it.

Senate Bill 1947 also offers a respite for public school families suffering under a sledgehammer of dysfunction and disrespect.

There was the seven-day teacher’s strike in 2012. And the next year, nearly 50 schools, closed. And for years, Chicago’s civic and political leadership has gone begging, arguing for equitable funding for our struggling school district.

Rauner has pushed a right-wing, divide-and-conquer agenda to cultivate his shrinking political base. He pits the rich against the poor, and calls funding for Chicago’s majority/minority school system an undeserved “bailout.”

History has killed confidence in CPS, especially in the African-American community. In 2016, Cook County lost more than 12,000 black residents, “the deepest loss of African Americans in any county in the nation,” writes Alden Loury, director of research and evaluation at the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The county’s black population has fallen by more than 50,000 since 2010, according to Loury’s analysis of Census data.

Most of those folks were leaving the South and West sides of Chicago. One big reason, the public schools.

In segregated Chicago, geography and race predetermine the chance to get a decent education. Families of color will jump at the chance to opt for a private education — for their superior education, discipline and stability.

My family did. Growing up on the South Side, I attended five different Catholic schools, K through 12. I was born and raised Catholic. My working-class parents scraped and sacrificed to send me there, not for the faith, but for a better chance. Whatever success I have had, I owe to the values, discipline and quality education I received.

My mother told me about public school teachers who had to buy their own school supplies. I saw the scars the public school kids brought home from the gang fights. I remember the Willis Wagons, those raggedy, drafty trailers where black students were exiled, to segregate and undermine them.

My parents and many like them paid thousands of dollars in taxes to support the public schools, then paid thousands more for private school tuition. They wanted a choice.

Public school families deserve our support. Parents who want choice deserve the same.

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