Good business starts with good education

The state of education in Illinois is nothing short of a crisis — only 29% of our third-grade students are meeting reading proficiency standards, according to state data.

Students who struggle to read by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Nearly 90% of third-grade students with disabilities and more than 80% of Black and Hispanic students are not meeting standards. This dismal performance should shock every parent and citizen in our state.

The crisis in Illinois education doesn’t just hurt students and families — it hammers our business climate and economic competitiveness.

Companies look at a state’s education outcomes and talent pipeline as a factor when determining where to build, expand or relocate. Growing states for people and businesses — such as Florida and Colorado — outperform Illinois students in elementary reading proficiency. Similarly, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota and Michigan have better diploma rates. Illinois’ current education system can be a red flag, on top of a crippling tax burden and hostile regulatory environment. We’re giving businesses too many reasons to avoid Illinois.

Meanwhile, families and children across socioeconomic lines continue to flee Illinois schools in search of better opportunities. Since 2019, public school enrollment has plummeted by 127,000 students.

It’s happening everywhere in our communities. Even in Palatine and Arlington Heights, where proficiency in reading and math are higher than state averages, many students are struggling to meet grade-level standards in core subjects. Only 36% of third- through eighth-grade students in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 are proficient in reading and only 34% in math. In Arlington Heights District 25, proficiency is 56% in reading and 47% in math. You’ll find similar results all around the state.

We had a blueprint forward, the Invest in Kids scholarship program, which was Illinois’ answer to the national push to expand education options and empower parents.

The Invest in Kids program has proved that when parents are empowered to choose the right school for their children, students achieve remarkable gains. Third- through eighth-grade low-income scholarship students who utilized the tax-credit program outperformed their public school peers in both reading and math.

The results for high school students were even better. The reading proficiency rate on the SAT for 11th-grade students in the Invest in Kids program was nearly 20 percentage points higher than the rate for low-income public school students and about 3 percentage points higher than the rate for all 11th-grade students in Illinois public schools.

The scholarship program had support from four trade unions and was amended in 2021 to allow scholarships for students to attend trade school programs, which would prepare kids to go directly into apprenticeships at the end of high school. So, not only did the program bolster academic success for low-income students, but it also provided these students with the opportunity to get a head start on a well-paying career.

Rather than embrace this path forward, Illinois lawmakers buckled to special interest groups, such as the Chicago Teachers Union, and killed the Invest in Kids program — leaving more than 15,000 low-income students throughout Illinois without options.

Those families weren’t the only ones to benefit from school choice. The state saved nearly $12,100 per student who received an Invest in Kids scholarship, freeing up those resources to be used elsewhere, including in public schools.

If Illinois wants to revive its business climate and make the state an attractive place for companies, lawmakers must pursue school choice, high standards and real accountability in education. School boards could go further by pursuing greater transparency in their curriculum.

Businesses also have a crucial role to play in transforming Illinois’ education landscape. They can start by partnering with schools and trade unions to help fill the void left by Invest in Kids.

By offering internships, and supporting vocational training programs, companies can help bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world skills.

It’s time for parents, educators, business leaders and policymakers to unite in demanding excellence in our schools. Let’s advocate for proven literacy programs, and the revival of successful initiatives like the Invest in Kids scholarship program.

Every child in Illinois deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of their ZIP code or background.

Matt Paprocki is president and CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute.

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