The school voucher battle is about to heat up as Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) gives his bill, SB 1932, a final tune-up before it is put up for a floor vote.

The school voucher battle is about to heat up as Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) gives his bill, SB 1932, a final tune-up before it is put up for a floor vote.

Unlike last year’s bill, sponsored by Sen. James Meeks (D-Chicago), Murphy’s bill caps the value of a voucher at $3,800 per year or a private school’s actual rate for tuition—whichever is less.

The vouchers would be given to parents of eligible grade-school students, those enrolled in the lowest-achieving or most overcrowded Chicago schools. The state would pay the schools and then deduct the total funding for the vouchers from funds otherwise distributed to Chicago Public Schools. (An amendment tweaking that system for FY 2013 and FY 2014 was to be heard in committee on Wednesday.)

Murphy’s bill is strongly supported by the Catholic Conference of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute, a Springfield-based think tank that functions as an arm of the Illinois Republican Party.

How many students would the vouchers pay for?

The Meeks bill, which was similar, would have covered an estimated 30,000 students at a total cost to CPS of about $114 million.

Murphy has estimated his bill would cover far fewer children, however.

If amended in committee, as expected, the bill will go to the floor of the Senate for a vote. Unless the opinions of a few senators have changed recently, it will pass over to the House for consideration after the Legislature’s spring break, after May 3.

Last year, Meeks’ bill failed in the House.

School facilities bill

Chicago Public Schools officials have rescinded plans to close and consolidate schools, bowing to community pressure. A bill that would require the district to take community input into facilities decisions and craft a master facilities plan is also moving ahead toward passage.

In late 2009, the Illinois legislature unanimously enacted a law creating a “Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force in order to ensure that school facility-related decisions are made with the input of the community and reflect educationally sound and fiscally responsible criteria.”

The law arose from concerns that CPS officials made decisions – closing and consolidating schools, opening others, moving students around – without community input, in ways that were harmful to students and for reasons unrelated to education.

The task force was formed, public hearings were held, research was conducted and the Chicago Educational Facilities Task Force released its findings and recommendations last month.

The task force found, for example, that CPS has ignored national standards for measuring a school’s capacity, consistently overstating the number of students it could serve. Then it “historically … has used ‘under-utilization’ as a reason for closing or consolidating schools.”

The task force also found the CPS’ “criteria for capital spending priorities system-wide are not clear.” More than half of the nearly $1.14 billion spent for FY 2006-2010 was spent on only 67 of 603 Chicago Public Schools,” and none at all was spent on 330 schools during that period.

Legislation was filed this week to codify the task force recommendations, establishing facilities decision-making requirements that the CPS board would have to follow – or forego any state funding for school construction in the future.

Senate Amendment 1 to Senate Bill 620, sponsored by Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) would establish a “school action and accountability master planning” requirement for CPS (but not for other school districts in the state).

The bill would require CPS to develop a 10-year “Educational Facility Master Plan” and a 5-year “Capital Improvement Plan,” with input from “parents/guardians, local school councils, educators and other stakeholders.”

The plans would have to be “coordinated” with other local government units and agencies and aligned with “educational goals and vision that prioritize students’ well-being and academic success.” The bill requires “transparent and accountable systems and controls” on CPS facility-related actions, through “publicly accessible data, information, reports and audits.”

The task force also recommends state funding for CPS school facilities “that is predicated on its compliance” with the provisions of SB 620.

The legislation is poised to pass the Senate by Friday’s third-reading deadline. If that happens, the bill would move to the House for committee and floor consideration after that chamber returns from its spring break on April 26.

Given the unanimous vote for the bill creating the task force in 2009 and the influence of the bipartisan group of legislators who served on it, SB 620 appears likely to be enacted by the end of May.

Jim Broadway is founder and publisher of State School News Service.

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