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Alexander (left), Tracy and Christopher Smith. Tracy Smith wanted to ensure her boys got a Catholic education and turned to the Invest in Kids state tax credit scholarship program to help her family when they could no longer afford it.

Nearly 10,000 Illinois students get taxpayer-supported scholarships for private schools. Should this continue?

Twin brothers Christopher and Alexander Smith have only ever attended Catholic schools in Chicago. On a recent afternoon, the 15-year-olds are all smiles as they talk about a spring break trip they took to Ireland with their school band at Marist High School, a Catholic school on the city’s Southwest Side. They feel fortunate to be able to travel and do other activities there.

“I currently do fencing, and I’m in band. My brother is, too,” says sophomore Alexander Smith. “I really love the school for its variety.”

He hopes to one day work for the CIA while his brother Christopher says the education at Marist is leading him toward his dream job.

“I am involved in the mock trial club because I want to be a family court judge when I’m older,” he says cheerfully.

Their mother, Tracy Smith, says it is imperative for her sons to have a Catholic education. She’s a product of Catholic schools, and she wants her sons to have a relationship with God and to freely explore that at school. But a death in the family when the boys were in fifth grade put them in a tough financial spot.

“There was a lot of bills and legalities that had to be paid out, basically wiped me out,” she recalls. “At the time they were flourishing as St. Sabina, [they had] always been on the principal list. It was a question of ‘Would they be able to continue their education there?’ ”

Smith, a substitute teacher, was able to keep her boys in Catholic school through a controversial state tax credit scholarship program. Enacted by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and started in 2018 as a five-year pilot, the program has continued under Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker and is operating on a one-year extension. It’s designed to give lower-income families access to private schools, but critics say it diverts money from underfunded public schools.

Lawmakers must decide this spring whether to allow the program to sunset at the end of the year.

Under the Invest In Kids Act, taxpayers can donate to designated scholarship granting organizations around the state in exchange for a 75% income tax credit, capped at $75 million. Students from households making no more than 300% of the federal poverty level can apply. That’s $90,000 a year for a family of four. This school year, about two-thirds of scholarship recipients came from families earning no more than 185% of the federal poverty level. Scholarship organizations say the program is meant to serve lower income students of color.

“We see more scholarships awarded every year, more dollars raised to support those scholarships, and I would say more awareness and participation from schools and families from all parts of the state,” said Anthony Holter, executive director of Empower Illinois, the largest scholarship granting organization in the state.

In the program’s first year, more than $61.5 million in contributions financed more than 7,000 scholarships. This school year, it’s grown to nearly $76 million contributions and more than 9,600 scholarships. Critics say those amount to big losses for the state; the 75% income tax credit awarded to donors could go to underfunded public schools.

Holter disagrees.

“It was part of a comprehensive education funding reform that increased funding to public schools significantly, several $100 million more a year,” he said of the passage of the Invest in Kids Act in 2017, which was part of a deal in which the state also created a new funding formula that directs any new funding passed by the state each year for education to the neediest school districts first.

“Let’s not forget that these independent private schools throughout the state also serve a very important role in educating Illinois kids,” Holter added.

Holter said scholarship demand is high and more than 20,000 kids were on the waiting list this past cycle with Empower Illinois.

“This is a scheme”

Critics of the tax credit scholarship program are just as passionate as the supporters. Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, says it amounts to a voucher program that takes money away from public schools.

“I contribute to causes, to my church, to different things that I think are important to me, not so that I can get three-quarters of that back and a tax scholarship. I give that because that’s what a donation is,” she said. “This is a scheme … We would have a different conversation if our schools were fully funded, but they are not.”

A report last fall from the Partnership for Equity and Education Rights Illinois and the Education Law Center showed 1.7 million students from 83% of Illinois school districts still attend underfunded schools, despite the new funding formula passed in 2017.

Overwhelmingly, the scholarships are used at religious schools, the majority Catholic. Griffin is concerned that some private schools can discriminate against certain students based on religion, disabilities or LGBTQ identity. She questions whether there is significant academic growth among scholarship recipients and whether students attended public schools before getting a scholarship. The state is working with an external group to analyze academic performance of scholarship students, but that analysis likely won’t be available until this fall.

“If we want to really focus on making sure that our Black and brown students get a quality education, we need to take that $75 million and put it into those schools to help those public schools address the needs of those students,” Griffin said.

However, Griffin recognizes kids are relying on this program and their education shouldn’t be disrupted.

“We don’t want to pull the rug out from any child,” she said. “If a child is currently involved in the program, and say that they are in seventh grade, let them finish eighth grade and then go on to high school … We can work on that to help support those students.”

Cassie Creswell, director of Illinois Families for Public Schools, says the scholarships don’t need to end, but the state should stop giving up millions in tax credits.

“If this is about the kids, and it’s about providing kids with scholarships, the people who are doing this for the tax credits can keep on [donating],” Creswell said. “There’s no reason that Empower Illinois can’t be handing out just as much money in scholarships.”

Tracy Smith’s sons are no longer on tax credit scholarships, but she wants the program to continue for families who don’t have access to better options. Smith points out that tax credits aren’t new; film productions that come to Illinois can get a 30% break.

“Why can’t we give the same to our children,” she asked. “For this to go away would be a devastation to our educational system.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

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