CHICAGO — Theauntae Jones’ day begins before sunrise. He boards a bus near his home on Chicago’s Far West Side and embarks upon an hour-and-a-half-long commute to high school on the city’s South Side.

It’s a commute that’s made his mother cry.

“It should not be that hard where you have to go outside your neighborhood just to find a better education for your child,” Theauntae’s mother, Tanisha Williams, said.

Theauntae’s neighborhood high school is Orr Academy. It’s about a mile from his home but an eternity from his family’s expectations of a quality education.  

Orr has a 59% graduation rate and 72% of its students miss 10% or more of the school year without a valid excuse, according to Illinois State Board of Education data. CPS as a whole has an 84% graduation rate and 40% of its students are chronically absent.

Theauntae’s family said he had good grades in 8th grade but tested poorly so he had few options at CPS’ selective enrollment and magnet schools. He landed at Leo High School, an all-boys catholic high school far from his home. 

Initially, he took two CTA buses and the train to reach the school. Initially, his mom had to work two jobs to pay for his portion of tuition and transportation.

“The structure of education is inadequate to supply the needs of our students,” Leo alum turned principal Shaka Rawls said. “You can look at the numbers of suspensions, the numbers in terms of attendance rates, you just know that sometimes schools just aren’t a good fit for students.”

Theauntae now benefits from an Invest in Kids scholarship. 

The $75 million program is the closest Illinois comes to publicly financed school choice. Donors to certified scholarship programs are offered state tax credits. 

The scholarships can be a lifeline for low-income families who hope to access private schools. 

Leo High School, which has a 100% graduation rate, credits the scholarships with boosting enrollment from 166 to 230 students in just four years.

However, the program is now in jeopardy as it faces fierce opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union.  A spokesperson for CTU said the union’s opposition hasn’t changed despite the fact union president Stacy Davis Gates admitted in September she sends her son to a private high school because she found the local public school “very marginal.”

If lawmakers don’t vote to extend the Invest in Kids program during their November veto session, it will end.

Gov. JB Pritzker (D) was originally opposed to the scholarship program; however, his spokesperson now says he was considering signing an extension if Democrats pass the bill.  However, there are questions about whether enough Democrats will join Republicans to support the legislation.

“You have the right to make sure your child is ok, but we also have the responsibility to make sure we have a school system that is equitable for our young people,” longtime activist Jitu Brown said.

His group, Journey for Justice, joined other organizations, parents and the Chicago Teachers Union in a hunger strike that saved Chicago’s Dyett High School from closing several years ago.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson joined school leaders at Dyett last week to celebrate CPS’ record-high graduation rate of 84% plus gains in performance at many schools and $2 billion in college scholarships awarded to students.

“Despite today’s inspiring announcement we know that too many of our schools are still suffering from the effects of historic disinvestment and disempowerment,” Johnson said at the event.  “We can do better as Dyett has clearly proven.”

The mayor omitted key stats contrasting with the rosy picture he painted of Dyett’s turnaround story. State data show fewer than 6% of Dyett’s students are proficient in English, language arts, math and science. The school has a chronic absenteeism rate of 72%.

Asked to explain why the mayor and school leaders held Dyett up as a success story that should be modeled a CPS spokesperson responded: “Yes, we have more work to do but everyone from the U.S. Secretary of Education to our own alums, took time on Tuesday to share how CPS is making progress and is expanding pathways to help students succeed.” 

CPS officials correctly point out that there are countless success stories even among students in struggling schools. 

Theauntae Jones’s family feared CPS was a system that could have easily passed him academically while at the same time failing to help him reach his true potential.  The high school senior is now awash in mailings from prospective colleges and universities.  “They don’t only know me as the big guy,” Theauntae said when asked about his reputation these days.  “They know me as a big, intelligent guy.  The big guy who makes music and a football player and a bunch of other things.  Really what’s next for me is creating a legacy wherever I go.”