Families Fight To Keep Controversial State Scholarships For Private School

Josie and Elias Lopez
Chicago mother Josie Lopez says she cried when her son Elias won a tax credit scholarship to a Catholic school this academic year. Now, Gov. JB Pritzker wants to phase the program out. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Josie and Elias Lopez
Chicago mother Josie Lopez says she cried when her son Elias won a tax credit scholarship to a Catholic school this academic year. Now, Gov. JB Pritzker wants to phase the program out. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Families Fight To Keep Controversial State Scholarships For Private School

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Less than two years after Illinois started using taxpayer dollars to send students to private schools, newly-elected Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker wants to kill the scholarship program that benefits more than 7,000 students.

Saying it diverts state money that could go to public schools, Pritzker has proposed phasing it out over the next three years. He hopes to get legislation passed in Springfield this spring. But private schools and scholarship winners said the program gives them options, and they’re going to fight to keep it alive.

Chicago mother Josie Lopez remembers how she reacted when her son got a state scholarship for this school year.

“When I received the letter at home … I just cried,” Lopez said. “I didn’t think anything like this would happen to us. It was such a blessing to receive the help.”

Her son Elias, a soft-spoken kid who grew up in the Catholic school system, chose Holy Trinity High School. He is a sophomore at the West Town school.

“It’s a good environment and the teachers are really helpful,” he said.

Josie Lopez said she could never afford the school on her own. She’s a single mother who works at an optometrist’s office. She keeps a tight budget and has had to seek out scholarships for all of Elias’ schooling. Elias was one of a few dozen kids at his school to receive a state tax credit scholarship.

But those scholarships are now in jeopardy, just as the program is moving into its second year. The program was created under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner after it was tucked into a bill overhauling how Illinois funds public schools. It became law in 2017 without any public debate.

The tax credit scholarship program allows taxpayers to donate up to $1.3 million to scholarship granting organizations and in return receive a 75 percent tax credit in return. It’s the country’s most generous tax credit. Moderate- and low-income students are eligible to apply for scholarships to private schools that can use that taxpayer money.

Supporters of the program tout it as a way to give less advantaged students more quality options for education. This year 7,130 students won scholarships, according to data compiled by WBEZ. Tens of thousands of kids tried for the scholarships, which can pay up to $13,000.

Josie Lopez said their local public high school is just a minute from their home in Humboldt Park, but she wouldn’t consider it.

“The neighborhood that I’m in, there’s quite a few public schools, and it’s not a good environment,” she said. “I think about my son having to walk alone after school in that area, and it’s something that I don’t feel safe about.”

She also said Holy Trinity starts the day with a prayer, and that’s important to her Catholic faith.

“Families depend on this”

In Pritzker’s budget plan released last month, he proposed a three-year phase out of the tax credit scholarship program. He also wants to cut the contribution cap in half from $100 million to $50 million.

Donations are already down substantially this year, which could result in fewer scholarships awarded for next school year than were awarded this year. Students have to reapply annually.

“We’re very concerned about what that will do for families that depend on this to find a best fit school for their kids,” said Anthony Holter, executive director of Empower Illinois.

Empower Illinois is the state’s biggest scholarship granting organization. Last year, it raised most of the program’s money, just over $45 million. It granted 5,500 scholarships.

More than $60 million raised for state scholarships in first year
State-authorized scholarship organizations 2018 Taxpayer dollars donated Scholarships awarded
Empower Illinois $45,165,324 5459
Big Shoulders Fund $10,155,857 1272
Children’s Tuition Fund of Illinois $5,354,846   322
HighSight $766,256    67
Children at the Crossroads Foundation $68,150      6
Institute for Community at Highpoint $43,950      4
Join Hands East St. Louis $100      0
Total $61,554,483 7130
Sources: Illinois Department of Revenue; scholarship granting organizations

Holter said most of the scholarships from Empower Illinois are going to low-income families. At the start of the 2018-19 school year, WBEZ found that 72 percent of scholarship winners qualified for free or reduced price lunch and were considered low income.

But 28 percent were not — a family of four can make up to $73,800 and qualify for a scholarship. And, it doesn’t appear the program pulled in a lot of new kids to private schools.

Many recipients around the state like Elias Lopez were returning private school students. Holter said Empower Illinois doesn’t have data on how many of its recipients are new to private schools. But he argued the scholarship is about both school choice and making it easier for families who have already chosen private schooling, like a father he met who is supporting two daughters.

“He had to work three jobs in order to make it possible for his daughters to attend,” Holter recalled. “And when he found out they got the scholarship, he knew he’d only have to work two jobs. And he could be the father to his daughters that he always wanted to be.”

Last year, seven scholarship granting organizations raised a total of more than $61 million. That’s about $46 million worth of tax credits that didn’t go into the public coffers. As of March 6, scholarship granting organizations had $18 million in pledged donations. That’s significantly less than this time last year, when pledged contributions reached well over $46 million.

Scholarship donations way down in second year

Taxpayer donations
2018 2019
Pledged donations $46,720,944 $18,047,128
Paid donations $17,620,791 $6,659,446
Number of pledged donations 2,233 869
Number of paid donations 1,001 366
Source: Illinois Department of Revenue data comparing 3/6/18 and 3/6/19

Critics argue: Fund public schools first

Kathi Griffin is with the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. She said diverting those tax dollars to private schools is a bad idea because the state’s public school system isn’t properly funded.

“We should invest in our school buildings,” Griffin said. “We should make sure we have a well-rounded curriculum. We should make sure that class sizes are small enough so that our students can get one-on-one attention when needed.”

She said the scholarship program amounts to a voucher system, which sends public money to private schools, many of them religious schools.

“We know in Illinois that we aren’t supposed to use taxpayer money for private [religious] schools. And yet, this program helps skirt the law,” Griffin said.

Meanwhile, scholarship organizations, private schools and families are calling on lawmakers to save the program at its current funding cap of $100 million. The Archdiocese of Chicago, which is struggling with declining enrollment, saids Cardinal Blase Cupich wants to meet with Pritzker about keeping the program. Catholic schools around the state enroll thousands of scholarship winners.

Anthony Holter
Anthony Holter is executive director of Empower Illinois, the state’s biggest scholarship granting organization. Last year, it raised more than $45 million and granted 5,500 scholarships. Miguel Zuno Jr. / WBEZ

The Diocese of Joliet, along with scholarship granting organizations including Empower Illinois, hosted an event this week to discuss the program’s benefits. They invited state Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant. She filed a bill that prohibits the state from awarding any tax credits in exchange for scholarship contributions if the state doesn’t meet minimum funding levels for public schools.

Josie Lopez and her son have reapplied for a scholarship for next year. Lopez said her son doesn’t want to go to the neighborhood public school, and he has asked her to get a second job if the scholarship doesn’t come through.

“I cannot get a second job because then I would never spend time with him,” Lopez said. “And the area I’m in, I don’t want a young teenage boy to be out there by himself.”

Holy Trinity administrators said they’ll help the Lopez’s and any other family stay at the school if the scholarship program ends. They said it’s what they’ve always done.

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