Lotteries for School Choice

(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)

On Aug. 11 inside a school gymnasium in West Englewood, more than 200 parents scribbled their child’s name on a pink raffle ticket.

They crossed their fingers, prayed and waited.

Representatives of Freedom to Learn Illinois fished the names of 15 youngsters out of a bin. The kids whose names were called won scholarships to attend private schools of their choice. They wouldn’t be stuck at their designated neighborhood school. Fifteen children from at-risk families went home that day with a new backpack and a chance.

That’s from the Chicago Tribune’s excellent Monday editorial. Freedom to Learn is trying to succeed where public policy has failed, by giving kids a choice. The group – where I’m a board member – is a grassroots group dedicated to school reform. It currently commits most of its resources to opportunity scholarships. The obvious goal is to better kids’ lives, immediately. A larger objective of the group is to have its scholarship program become the model for a publicly funded program, like those in nearby Indiana and Wisconsin.

The Trib goes on to highlight a new school choice proposal in the Illinois legislature.

A bill introduced in Springfield takes a new approach to school choice that its sponsor, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, hopes will temper opposition.

Ford’s bill would use money from lottery ticket sales to pay for 1,000 scholarships each year of up to $6,000. Students who live in the top-grossing ZIP codes for lottery sales would be eligible. Most of those ZIP codes are located in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. One Chicago ZIP code alone, 60619 on the South Side, generates nearly $30 million in annual ticket sales.

When it was launched in 1974, the Illinois Lottery was supposed to be the panacea for education funding. It never happened. Lottery money merely replaced, not supplemented, what the state was paying toward K-12 education…

Ford’s bill draws a straighter line between the lottery and education. It would cost the lottery about $6 million out of about $708 million in lottery proceeds that go toward special causes each year…

The bill gets around one important argument against traditional vouchers: The scholarship money wouldn’t come from tax dollars.

You have to give Ford an A for creativity. And I love the use of the lottery. In some states, like Georgia and Arkansas, the lottery is used to fund higher education scholarships; why not K-12 scholarships, which would actually do more to increase higher education attainment by decreasing dropout rates and increasing college attendance? Ford has a difficult fight on his hands (and some personal legal difficulties to manage as well). Illinois’ leading Democratic champions for school choice – Rev. James Meeks, Kevin Joyce and Karen Yarbrough – have all quit the General Assembly. The fight for school choice in Illinois likely remains a multi-year battle.

But in the meantime, Freedom to Learn and other Illinois charities will be putting kids through school, giving them the choice that our public education system currently denies them.


2 Responses to Lotteries for School Choice

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Two problems: Having the eligibility zone shift from year to year has been a major hindrance to participation in previous programs. And tying school choice to the lottery gives up the moral high ground. The lottery teaches people instant gratification, the disconnecting of achievement from merit, and just in general the expectation that the universe is chaotic so it doesn’t much matter what you do. Let’s not try to educate people by de-educating them, shall we?

  2. Mike says:

    Reblogged this on This Got My Attention and commented:
    School choice in Illinois. Anti-choice forces in Madison are doing everything they can to keep their captive clientele. Hopefully Walker and the legislature will move education reform forward.

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