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Illinois Public Schools on the Defensive

Jim Nowlan
Jim Nowlan

As I write this, the Illinois House has just passed a school funding bill that includes $75 million in first-ever state tax credits for scholarships for youngsters to attend nonpublic schools in our state.

The proposal is yet another declaration of lack of confidence in Illinois public schools.

I am a believer in public schools as the historic bedrock upon which our nation has been built. I also believe in competition as a tool for enhancing quality.

Yet public schools have been held suspect in various quarters since the mid-1800s.

Catholic schools became especially important to Irish Catholic immigrants because of intense discrimination against these newcomers from Yankees, who controlled the public schools.

By the 1960s, however, many of the Catholic parish schools began to struggle because they were losing their low-cost teaching-religious sisters and brothers.

About the same time, Catholic families began fleeing many inner-city neighborhoods, leaving behind poor parishes that then struggled to provide education to minority students.

Coincidentally, or not, the four Illinois legislative leaders (two Dems, two GOPers) who recently approved the tax credit idea are all Irish Catholic.

In 1963, the US Supreme Court prohibited prayer in schools. As a result, I think many conservative Christians began to look for alternatives such as home-schooling. The home school families I know have little good to say about public schools.

But much else was at play as well.

When I was a back-bench lawmaker in the late 1960s, many of us felt aid-to-nonpublic schools was unconstitutional.

Yet a series of court decisions since then concluded that aid to religious schools can pass constitutional muster. The aid must benefit the student, as in scholarships to students, who in turn use same for tuition at nonpublic schools (most of which are Catholic).

In 1983, the Reagan education department issued “A Nation at Risk,” a report that excoriated American schools, 90 percent of which are still public, for falling behind other nations in student achievement.

This prompted a school reform movement that soldiers on to this day. The report energized American corporate leaders to weigh in, saying they could improve schools by making them more like accountable businesses.

Also in the 1980s — I said this was complicated — teacher unions gained the right to strike in Illinois and rapidly became political powerhouses. Some business leaders saw a connection between teacher unions and perceived poor student achievement. This fueled efforts to provide alternatives to traditional public schools.

These initiatives include charter schools, which are somewhat independent schools within public school districts. They operate free of unions thus far.

Most of the 100 or more charter schools in Illinois are in Chicago. Few are found downstate, where most school districts are too small to fit in another school, even if they wanted to.

I have always felt that most education failings result primarily from increasing family dysfunction and low parental expectations for their children.

For example, I go right by the local high school on my frequent walks out into the country. I see many teacher automobiles in the parking lot early each morning, long before school begins.

The many teachers I know work their butts off and often seem more caring of the students than some of the parents—all for an average salary in my rural district of $48,500.

As I understand the sketchy details of the tax credit proposal, wealthy individuals would get a 75 percent credit for contributions to a scholarship fund to help low-income youngsters attend non-public schools. This credit plus federal tax deductions might make it possible for donors to actually “make a buck” net from their “good deeds.”

The $75 million in tax credits would deprive the state general funds of that amount, money that might otherwise go to public schools. Clearly, the idea is a slap at public schools.

I do believe competition via school choice induces educators to up their game in order to keep their students.

On the other hand, alternatives to traditional public education, by their nature, tend to attract better students, probably with fewer problems overall, into their classrooms. Some perform better than traditional publics; some do not.

Neighboring Iowa offers its students open enrollment. That is, students may attend any public school they wish at no increased cost. If a neighboring school district has a better music program, a talented aspiring musician can attend that school. Or Mom can take her daughter to work 40 miles away each day, and drop her girl off at school in the town where she works, riding together each way each day.

People say open enrollment wouldn’t work in Illinois. They say parents who could figure out the transportation involved would send their kids to the schools that spend twice as much per pupil as their own district, and for other reasons.

I say we should pilot the idea in part of the state, as another public school choice option.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at

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