‘Tax Credit Scholarship’ Program May Soon Be Coming to Illinois
By Rachel M. Cohen | Aug 29, 2017
On Monday night, the Democratic-controlled Illinois House of Representatives voted in favor of an education funding plan that includes the establishment of a “tax credit scholarship” program: subsidies that support donors who help families pay for private school tuition. The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a similar bill Tuesday.
The money allocated to this voucher-like program is relatively small, just $75 million in credits, but opponents rightly note that most states that have established similar programs have increased the subsidies substantially over time. Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program launched in 2001 with a cap of $50 million but today their program tops out at $699 million.
The circumstances that led to Democrats approving subsidies for private school tuition are complicated, but the short version of the story is that state legislators felt intense pressure to pass a school funding bill, one that would finally revamp Illinois’s notoriously inequitable school funding formula. Facing a likely veto from Bruce Rauner, the Republican governor, that Democrats wouldn’t be able to immediately override, they decided to use the tax credit scholarship measure as a bargaining chip to get the measure passed.
Illinois lawmakers approved a separate bill to fix the state’s school funding formula in July, but Rauner vetoed parts of it earlier this month, saying too much money would be distributed to Chicago’s public school district. In mid-August, the Illinois Senate voted to override the governor’s veto, with one Republican joining the Senate’s 37 Democrats.
But on Monday, the House failed to override the governor’s veto, falling eight votes short of the necessary three-fifths majority.
Illinois school districts cannot receive state aid until the legislature approves a funding package. So with the new school year starting, House Democrats decided to accept the tax credit scholarship program, rather than prolong the negotiations.
Teacher unions were furious.
“Tonight's vote for a voucher scheme for the state of Illinois is disappointing, and the worst assault on public education since mayoral control of schools was granted in 1995,” said the Chicago Teachers Union in a statement. “We are now firmly in line with the President Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos privatization agenda. Illinois legislators have voted to ‘reform’ the worst school funding system in the country with a ticking time bomb of a voucher scheme, and the Illinois Democratic Party has crossed a line which no spin or talk of ‘compromise’ can ever erase.”
The Illinois Federation of Teachers directed its criticism at the governor:
Tonight, state legislators moved Illinois closer to doing what we have needed to do for decades—treat our poorest students and communities fairly. Unfortunately, it came at a very disappointing cost. Governor Rauner capitalized on the crisis he created when he vetoed the original bill and used it as leverage for private school tax credits that benefit the wealthy while working families continue to struggle.
We’re on a better path toward equity and adequacy, and we must move forward in our classrooms and communities. But it’s clearer than ever that this Governor does not prioritize public schools, and we must fight for one who does in 2018.
According to the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA), Chicago Public School officials—appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel—helped push forward the bill, pressuring CPS principals to call and lobby in support. On Monday, CPAA referenced a piece Alexander Hertel-Fernandez published in The Prospect in 2015 about the rising threat of employer political coercion. "CPAA echoes the American Prospect and calls on CPS to immediately end their efforts to coerce their employees to support voucher legislation that many fundamentally disagree with," the organization stated.
J.B. Pritzker, a billionaire venture capitalist and the early frontrunner in the Democratic race for governor, released a statement saying that “it is disappointing that Bruce Rauner used our students as pawns in his political games to get a back-door voucher program put in place.” He promised to repeal the program if elected in 2018.