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Illinois families want to have options when deciding where to send their children to school.

The lucky ones do, and many choose to send their children to charter schools or private schools instead of their traditional local public school.

Why?

Some parents want their children to have a faith-based education that many private schools provide. Others aren't happy with how their local public school is performing.

For example, only 37 percent of Illinois students in grades 3 through 11 are proficient in the English Language Arts portion of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, test, according to the latest Illinois Report Card data. And only 31 percent of students passed the math test.

Of course, those are the statewide numbers. Some school districts show much better results, some far worse.

If your child attended one of the lower-performing public schools, wouldn't you want an option?

Charter schools are public schools, but they are operated independently of the local school board. Charter schools have more flexibility to innovate because they are exempt from certain mandates and restrictions that fetter traditional public schools.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, there are 61 charter schools with 141 charter school campuses operating in Illinois. They serve about 65,000 students. That's a relatively small number compared to the more than 2 million school-aged children in the state.

There also are nearly 1,700 private schools in Illinois serving more than 278,000 students, according to Private School Review, a national organization that looks to educate families about private schools and the opportunities they offer. Cook County alone is home to 800 private schools serving 143,000 students.

But many Illinois parents can't afford private school, and others don't have a nearby charter school option.

The average private school tuition is $5,813 for elementary schools in Illinois. It's $11,906 for private high schools, according to Private School Review. That's a lot of money — in addition to the local school taxes they'll pay — for a family wanting an option for a single child, let alone multiple children.

Last year, the Illinois General Assembly did something historic when it passed school-funding reform. It launched the Invest in Kids private school scholarship program, which offers tax breaks to those who donate money for scholarships for lower-income families who want the option to send their children to private schools but can't afford it on their own.

The legislation that created the scholarship program caps the tax-deductible donations at $100 million. So far, more than $41 million has been raised. That's amazing in itself.

What's even more amazing? The number of families who have applied for those scholarships.

As of this week, more than 62,000 children have applied for scholarships.

62,000!

The demand for options is undoubtedly there.

"Children get one chance at an education and thousands of parents across the state want to take advantage of every opportunity available to make sure their child has access to quality education options," said Myles Mendoza, president of Empower Illinois, one of the administrators of the scholarship program. "The need is there, the program is in place and now, we need donors to fund these scholarship opportunities and help children in need."

Despite the obvious demand and the fact that the program is only in its first year, many Democrats in the General Assembly and the Democratic candidate for governor, J.B. Pritzker, already want to eliminate it.

Why? Because public school teachers' unions — their key supporters — oppose it.

The unions oppose the private-school scholarships because they claim it diverts "much-needed dollars" away from public schools. Yeah, those public schools, the ones that aren't performing so well overall.

If the full $100 million is raised, between 11,000 and 15,000 children would be served, "depending on different tuition costs and whether the scholar received a full or partial scholarship, based on the family’s income level," Mendoza said.

That's well short of meeting the needs of 62,000 kids, but it's a good start for a first-year program.

Politicians shouldn't turn their backs on these families because they want to please a core constituency.

Invest in Kids is a much-needed program and should be here to stay, and it should be expanded to offer more Illinois families a choice in how they educate their children.

Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.

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