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What Makes Illinois' New Private School Choice Program Unique?

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Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed a bill into law Thursday that will help low- and middle-income families pay for tuition at private schools.

But what's generating the most attention, at least among school choice circles, is that students participating in the program will still have to take the same tests as their district school peers.

That's unique from many other private school choice programs, as my colleague Madeline Will reports for Education Week today:

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"Illinois requires that schools accepting scholarships administer the annual state test to the scholarship recipients. The state will later have independent researchers compare the outcomes of scholarship recipients to those of public school students across the state.

"That requirement differs from most other states' programs, said Jason Bedrick, the director of policy for the pro-school-choice group EdChoice. Typically, programs allow participating schools to choose from a menu of national norm-referenced tests, he said."

Although school choice proponents generally applauded Illinois lawmakers for creating the program, the testing requirements raised a few eyebrows—and hackles.

In addition to testing, the bill also included anti-discrimination language, and those requirements take a step toward satisfying the complaints raised by many critics of private school choice who say that such programs are far too lightly regulated.

Trump, DeVos, and the Broader Debate Over Private School Choice

That criticism has notched up significantly as President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' patronage of private school choice—state programs that either use public money or government incentives to send students to private school—has increased scrutiny of such programs.

Critics, in particular Democrats and teachers' unions, say the lack of transparency and accountability for private schools receiving state aid hurts students. They underscore the fact that private schools are often allowed to deny admission to students based on things such as their religion or sexual orientation, and that students receiving private school vouchers or tax-credit scholarships don't follow as rigorous of a testing regime as public school students. (For details on it's legal for private schools to turn away certain students, read more here.) 

Illinois Charter Schools Also Notch a Win

The tax-credit scholarship program wasn't the only win for school choice advocates: A provision to provide equitable funding for charter school students was also tucked into the state's funding formula bill.

Charter school students in most states do not receive the same per-pupil funding as their district peers—something that state and national charter school advocacy groups are working aggressively to change.

Related stories:

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