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Education group says school choice could be what unifies Illinois lawmakers

There’s no end in sight to the political gridlock in Springfield, but one group believes it has an education plan it’s convinced both Republicans and Democrats could support.
That plan is a new twist on an old idea: Corporations pay money into a special fund to get tax breaks -- and the cash from that fund could go to qualifying parents to spend on the school of their choice. 
Myles Mendoza works on education policy, including school choice issues. He worked with Rauner on some of those issues before Rauner had the keys to the governor’s mansion. Mendoza leads the Illinois Kids Campaign and its member organization, One Chance Illinois. The coalition is quietly pushing an idea that looks in concept like school vouchers, even though Mendoza’s quick to distinguish his plan from vouchers.
WBEZ got a draft of Mendoza’s plan. It hasn’t been introduced in the Statehouse, but Mendoza’s looking for a lawmaker’s backing. It’s early in the process, but Mendoza was willing to explain why, in spite of all of the financial issues facing Illinois, lawmakers should support tax breaks to corporations.
“We’re giving out tax credits for people to have luxury sports cars, we’re giving tax credits for all kinds of things and I think kids having access to quality education should be a high priority on the list of where we’re allocating tax credits,” he said.
Illinois doesn’t literally give tax credits for buying luxury cars, but the state has offered breaks to companies threatening to leave, or offered them in an attempt to lure new companies to locate jobs in the state. 
Mendoza’s point is tax breaks would be an incentive for a corporation, or even an individual, to contribute cash to a scholarship fund. The plan caps the amount the state’s Dept. of Revenue could give out in tax breaks at $200 million annually, and limits a single corporation or individual’s tax credit to $5 million in a calendar year.
Families - including middle-class families - could apply for some of that money so they could send their kid to, say, a private school they couldn’t otherwise afford. The draft points to families making more than two-and-a-half times the income needed to qualify for a free and reduced-price lunch. That means a family of four with an income of $100,000 could qualify for scholarship money, under the proposal.
Mendoza said that also means that kids attending failing or overcrowded schools could receive financial help to go somewhere else. Mendoza says 60 percent of the scholarship fund would be directed toward students in those low-performing or overcrowded schools. A non-profit would be in charge of managing the scholarship funds.
Other states have approved similar plans, including Indiana and Iowa. A recent attempt to pass the concept in New York recently stalled.
The draft also calls for reimbursing teachers up to $250 for out-of-pocket expenses spent on supplies for the classroom. 
In Illinois, Mendoza said charter schools, parochial schools and some trade unions are getting behind this idea in a coalition he called “unorthodox.” 
“It’s just a variety of people that normally wouldn’t come around the same table that have to support kids getting a quality education,” he said.
Someone else whose outlook on education could fit in with Mendoza’s plan is Gov. Rauner. Mendoza said leaders in Springfield know what his group is working on, but Rauner’s office wouldn’t comment.
Again, it’s early.
But there are signs it’s a concept Rauner could favor: During last year’s campaign for public office, Rauner talked a lot about his support of school choice and charter schools. And, he chose a Democrat, former State Sen. James Meeks, who pushed for school vouchers, to lead the state board of education. 
In this Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015 photo, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to students during a visit to Lamphier High School in Springfield, Ill. Rauner told students he needs to reallocate money from nonessential government services and move it over into essential services, like education. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
So say, hypothetically, Rauner’s in.
Mendoza would still need Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. Madigan acted favorably toward vouchers in the past, even though the initiative ultimately failed when it was last attempted in 2010.
Before you start humming Kumbaya, there is opposition: Teachers unions can’t stand Mendoza’s plan. They say it is vouchers, plain and simple; and they say that Mendoza’s trying to call it something else because vouchers are controversial.
“The reason they don’t want to call it ‘vouchers’ is because vouchers have been highly discredited around the country as having no beneficial public effects, no beneficial effects on education,” said Dan Montgomery, who heads the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “They do not make better schools. They don’t provide better outcome for kids.”
Montgomery didn’t hide the contempt in his voice, when he talked about giving tax breaks to corporations and wealthy people.
“I think it’s just unconscionable,” he said.
Mendoza takes issue with calling his plan vouchers: He said vouchers use public money and this plan calls for private money, even though giving out tax breaks is taxpayer money.
That complicates things because there’s another education policy initiative competing for political capital at the statehouse: Changing the formula the state uses to calculate funding for schools. 
While all this is going on behind the scenes, it does look like Rauner’s planning for an education push after the budget impasse, assuming it’s ever resolved.
“We’re actually working on big, big reforms in education,” Rauner said last week when a reporter asked why he’s been quiet on education. “We haven’t announced them yet because they’re all being formulated and it’s in process. In the coming months, we’re going to see some big announcements on things we’re gonna do to improve education.”
The question is, with the political atmosphere in Springfield so toxic right now, is there any education plan so appealing that it could actually bring the two sides together?
Tony Arnold covers Illinois politics for WBEZ. Follow him @tonyjarnold.

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