Matt Paprocki is the president of the Illinois Policy Institute, a free market think tank. He’s got a lot to do to convince his fellow Illinoisans that free market ideas are a good idea. Even so, he and his colleagues have had a lot of success. I speak with him about it for this week’s Overton Window podcast.
“I don’t want to start with talking about the negative. I think Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the world,” Paprocki says. “This is still a world-class city, and there’s huge opportunities that we have here. This is worth fighting for.”
One policy he’s fighting for is the state’s tax credit scholarship program, which is scheduled to expire at the end of the year. It gives low-income parents money to send their children to the school of their choice.
“There are 9,600 kids who will have to go back to failing schools if this program ceases to exist,” Paprocki says. He adds that there are 40,000 students on the waiting list for this program, evidence that parents want better options for their children.
Paprocki tells the story of a student in the south side of Chicago. She was eight years old when one of her classmates was shot and killed in her school.
“Kids like her and all of her classmates should go to a school where they know that they’re safe and where they can unleash their potential,” Paprocki says.
That student got a scholarship to a better school, graduated and became an anesthesiologist. “Same kid, same neighborhood, different schools,” Paprocki says.
More school choice is needed in Illinois, especially for students who don’t have options other than the Chicago Public Schools.
“A recent study showed that only 20% of kids can read at grade level in the Chicago schools,” Paprocki says. “Imagine that you have five kids. You’re going to send them to the government run schools and you know that only one of those five is going to be able to read at grade level. We have to do something about that and we have to do something fast.”
The biggest opposition to extending the scholarship program is the Chicago Teachers Union. “We have government unions who are trying to kill this program because there’s an alternative and we’re seeing a huge demand in it.”
He says the union has interests of its own. These tend to run counter to the interests of the public and result in higher costs for worse service. The average revenue the schools get is around $30,000 per student per year, but reading proficiency is getting worse. “These numbers continue to go down while funding continues to go up,” Paprocki says.
The union has such political strength because it funds many state lawmakers, even those outside the city. It has gotten political leaders in the state to oppose school choice even when they exercise it for their own family. Paprocki elaborates on the point:
If you have money, if you have means and wealth, like the leaders in our state do, you have school choice. The governor of Illinois lived down the street. He sends his kids to private schools. The speaker of the house lives in the suburbs here in Chicago. He sends his kids to private schools. The Senate president lives over in Oak Park and sends his kids to private schools. If you have the money, that’s an option for you. But if you’re poor, you may not be able to afford it.
The Illinois Policy Institute is not just writing about this to drive attention. In addition to a number of communications efforts, the institute has also gone into the movie-making business.
“We recently did a full-length documentary that we released earlier this year called Local One: The Rise of America’s Most Powerful Teachers Union. It’s called Local One because the Chicago Teachers Union was the first teachers union that popped up in the country,” Paprocki says.
“The reason we’re losing in this country is because we’re not talking to the middle, the moderates, the people who don’t think about politics in their day-to-day life,” Paprocki says. Using media like film is a way to get to people advocates would normally not be able to reach on school choice issues.
“What we have to show is how it helps the poor and disadvantaged, how it helps the marginalized. They’re the ones we’re fighting for,” Paprocki says.
“We see opportunities not necessarily with the people who agree, nor necessarily with people who disagree,” he says. Instead, he thinks about the people who have never thought about the issue before.
“We initially started polling about school choice and found that the majority of people didn’t have an opinion. That’s where there’s opportunity. Target those people,” Paprocki says.
To figure out whether they’re moving the needle with their work, they poll regularly to see what people in Illinois think. That includes the popularity of the Chicago Teachers Union.
“When we initially polled these people, the Chicago Teachers Union polled at about +17, which means that 17% of the population has a more favorable opinion of unions than unfavorable,” Paprocki says.
Then they released their documentary about the union and got as many people as they could to watch it. “Teachers union favorable went from +17 to +2. And right now in the city of Chicago, the teachers union polls at +0,” he says.
He remains optimistic about the state. “I just bought a house in the city of Chicago. This is my home and I’m going to go fight for this thing,” he says.
He talks about some of the victories the Illinois Policy Institute has had. Paprocki’s team has helped every public employee in the country get the right to opt out of paying unions as a condition of employment. They’ve gotten food trucks legalized in Chicago. They got people to vote against a constitutional amendment that would tax income at progressive rates. And they got a school choice scholarship in a blue state.
They’ve done this by funding creative ways to inform and engage people. “I am optimistic that we’re going to continue to do it here in what I believe is one of the greatest states in America,” Paprocki says.
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