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Ill. Lawmakers Debate Chicago Voucher Proposal

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Chicago school officials and political observers will have their eye on the Illinois Senate next week when it returns after a recess to debate a controversial voucher bill that would make Illinois the first state to steer state funds to religious schools.

The bill had been moving quickly through the Senate and its backers had hoped to have the full chamber vote on the measure in February before the short recess. Opposition to the bill slowed it down, however, and observers are waiting to see if it will regain its momentum.

"We are hoping it will not go much further, but if they want to get the votes for it, they probably could," said Chuck Shubart, a policy analyst for Designs for Change, a Chicago school-reform group.

Following the November elections, Republicans gained full control of the Illinois legislature, and they have vowed to pass much of their agenda within the first two months of the session. The voucher bill, though, seems to have slipped from the fast track.

Governor's Stance

Under the plan, parents of up to 2,000 Chicago children could get $2,500 a child to pay for tuition at any school they chose--including private and parochial schools. The bill passed the Senate education committee on a 6-to-4 vote that followed party lines. Republicans hold a seven-vote edge in the Senate and a 10-member majority in the House.

Gov. Jim Edgar, also a Republican, has said he favors an experimental voucher program and indicated in recent weeks that the Senate bill would meet with his approval. But he has shied away from a more spirited embrace of the voucher concept, avoiding any mention of it in his State of the State speech in January.

Sens. Dan Cronin and Patrick O'Malley, the bill's chief sponsors, have agreed that Illinois parents and school officials deserve the chance to see how the competition created by a voucher program would work, especially in the beleaguered Chicago district.

The Senate has already overwhelmingly passed a bill that would authorize the establishment of up to 45 charter schools across the state.

The House is expected to vote soon on the bill, which would allow as many as 15 charter schools in Chicago, 15 in the Chicago suburbs, and 15 in downstate Illinois.

The House is also expected to vote soon on a bill that would create "learning zones" in Chicago--groups of schools that would be free from most state regulations.

Senate Democrats and some Chicago officials, however, have focused their energies on the voucher bill, calling it an attempt by the legislature's new majority to impose its programs and ideas in a heavily Democratic school district that the G.O.P. does not represent.

Critics have also pointed to a similar voucher program in Milwaukee and argued that the program there has produced lackluster results. Other groups have protested that the bill would violate the state constitution's separation of church and state.

"The Illinois constitution clearly states that the General Assembly can never 'make any appropriation or pay from any public fund whatever, anything in aid of any church or sectarian purpose, or to help support or sustain any school, academy, seminary, college, university, or other literary or scientific institution, controlled by any church or sectarian denomination whatever,"' said Jane Whicher, a Chicago-based lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.

But lawmakers said they are being mindful of the constitutional language and believe the experiment would be worth the effort. Aides to the Senate education panel were working last week on amendments to the bill that will be presented when it reaches the Senate floor, probably next week.

Wisconsin Plan

Meanwhile, Illinois Republicans are not the only state officials seeking to turn a voucher bill into law.

Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin has introduced a plan to expand the Milwaukee voucher program--currently the only state-financed private-school-choice program in the country--to include church-affiliated schools. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1995.)

Because it is embedded in the budget plan Governor Thompson unveiled Feb. 14, the proposal is not on a fast track, although Republican control of the legislature bodes well for its chances of adoption. A joint legislative finance committee will begin hearings this month; the bill is expected to reach the Assembly and the Senate by about June 1.

Mr. Thompson's plan would expand the Milwaukee program from the 1,500 low-income children now eligible for $3,200 state grants to 3,500 children in the fall of 1996, and to 5,500 children the following year. The limit would be removed in 1998, and other limits on how many children with vouchers could attend any given private school would also be lifted.

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