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Reeder: Children in Ill. need educational choices

Published: Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

SPRINGFIELD – A while back, I showed up at the post office a half-hour before closing time and got in line to mail a package.

An officious man came up to me, pointed at the clerks working behind the counter and said, “If you are still in line at 5:30 p.m. you’ll have to leave – because I’m not going to pay those people overtime.”

So, I left the post office and drove across town to FedEx.

I can’t imagine standing in line to pay for groceries at the local supermarket and being turned away out of fear that maybe I’d still be in line past closing time.

To be sure, I’ve had my share of annoying experiences with private businesses.

When that happens, I spend my money elsewhere.

Not so with government-run operations like the U.S. Postal Service, Amtrak, or public schools.

Regardless of whether I’m pleased with the service these entities provide, my taxes underwrite the existence of these institutions. Financial incentives for quality customer service don’t exist in the same ways they do in the private sector.

For example, I send my daughters to a parochial school.

We are delighted by the caliber of teachers, the high level of engagement by parents and by the responsiveness of staff to parental concerns.

In fact, we are pleased enough with the education our children are receiving that we pay their tuition on top of the hefty taxes we pay to support public schools.

But many families can’t afford to this, which raises the question: How can we best ensure greater choice for children of all means and backgrounds?

One idea is for tax dollars to flow to students rather than to schools.

One option is to give parents “opportunity scholarships” – otherwise known as vouchers – and make choices on whether they want their youngsters educated in traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, church-affiliated schools or some other type of educational experience.

Not surprisingly, public school teachers' unions hate the concept of providing vouchers to parents.

Their reaction is much the same as how postal workers responded to the idea ending the U.S. Postal Service’s monopoly on handling first-class mail.

After all, a cozy monopoly is pretty hard for anyone to give up.

But competition makes organizations strive to be better, contends state Rep. Ed Sullivan, R-Mundelein.

Sullivan said he anticipates a bill being introduced next year that calls for offering opportunity scholarships to children attending the bottom 10 percent of Chicago Public Schools.

These schools are failing our most vulnerable children – those born into poverty and whose neighborhoods are ravaged by crime.

We are talking about public high schools that graduate fewer than half of their students. And even those who do obtain diplomas often are ill-prepared for entering the workforce or continuing their educations.

Sadly, these young people are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

Students in Indiana and Milwaukee already are benefiting from vouchers.

Why not Illinois?

In the wake of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the public – and parents in particular – are increasingly disillusioned with the failing school system.

When better than now to give them educational choices?

“The schools performing at the bottom are the same ones that were at the bottom 10 years ago,” Sullivan said. “Let’s try something new and see if we can help these children with vouchers. Not only do I think the students will benefit, but the competition should improve the public schools. Teachers unions are against this because they are afraid it might work – and spread statewide.”

• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute.

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