Gov. Pritzker Backpedals On Plans To End State Private School Scholarships

Tax credit scholarships
The state's private school scholarship program has been used at many Catholic schools, including St. Walter Catholic School in Chicago. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ
Tax credit scholarships
The state's private school scholarship program has been used at many Catholic schools, including St. Walter Catholic School in Chicago. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad / WBEZ

Gov. Pritzker Backpedals On Plans To End State Private School Scholarships

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The Illinois General Assembly made some major moves on education issues this legislative session that ended on Sunday, including boosting spending on schools, tackling the state’s teacher shortage and weakening charter schools. Gov. JB Pritzker also retained a private school scholarship program even though he had vowed to end it.

More for early childhood through college

Spending for K-12 education funneled through the state’s new funding formula will go up $375 million this year — $25 million more than what is called for in the formula. That includes $50 million in additional property tax relief. Separately, early childhood education will receive an additional $50 million, up to $544 million.

Higher education also got a boost. An extra $50 million goes to the Monetary Award Program, which offers college scholarships to low-income residents. Lawmakers expanded the pool of students eligible for MAP grants and about 1,200 students who immigrated to the U.S. as children will be eligible. The AIM HIGH merit-based scholarship program gets an additional $10 million. It’s designed to draw Illinois’ stop students to Illinois universities — and away from out of state schools.

Private school scholarships

Pritzker reneged on a promise made in his budget proposal and during the campaign to phase out a scholarship program for private schools.

The Invest In Kids Act is a five-year pilot that allows people to donate up to $1.3 million to special scholarship funds and in return get a 75% tax credit. Then, students from low- or middle-income families apply for a scholarship to a private school. Of the 7,000 scholarships awarded since 2018, nearly 5,000 winners were low income, the state’s annual report shows. Critics of the program say it diverts taxpayer dollars that could be going to public schools.

Pritzker had originally proposed capping the tax credit program at $50 million dollars during the three-year phase-out, down from $100 million. But late last week, after negotiations, Pritzker agreed to keep the program as long as the state funnels at least $350 million in new dollars into K-12 funding each year.

Anthony Holter runs Empower Illinois, one of the scholarships granting organizations. He said families are relieved the scholarships will continue, even if it’s under conditional terms.

“If that’s what it took … for there to be support for this program, certainly still a great win for kids and families throughout the state,” Holter said.

Teacher boost

Lawmakers also tried to address the state’s well-established teacher shortage. About 1,500 teaching positions went unfilled this year.

Currently, the minimum teacher salary is set at $10,000 and hasn’t been changed since the 1980s. Legislators voted to increase the minimum to $40,000 by 2025. The minimum would start ramping up next school year, starting at $32,076. Currently, more than 50 percent of the state’s school districts pay a minimum salary of less than $40,000, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Jim Reed, director of government relations with the Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, said the average Illinois teacher salary is $65,000. The new minimum will chip away at the teacher shortage, he said.

“So it will take a while, but certainly these incremental steps will make a big difference,” said Reed.

Senator Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, was critical of the measure, calling it an unfunded mandate.

“This prospective change in law could have a detrimental effect on property taxes, and in fact require some districts to raise property taxes,” Barickman said during floor debates.

Bill sponsor Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said teachers need to be able to earn a living.

“We can’t, on one hand, say that education is a priority in the state and on the other hand not be willing to pay for it,” Manar said in a statement. “Investing in educators is investing in education and it benefits students.”

Lawmakers also tried to tackle the teacher shortage through the teacher licensure process. Legislators passed a bill that does away with the basic skills exam for pre-service teachers.

“That’s another way that we can hopefully get more educators into the profession and more diversity in the profession as well,” said Reed of IEA.

However, the Illinois State Board of Education had already planned to phase out the test and replace it with a required minimum ACT and SAT score.

Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, sponsored a bill that called for the elimination of a video requirement necessary for a licensure exam called the edTPA. The exam requires student teachers to submit a video of themselves teaching in class along with a paper. The bill passed the House, but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. ISBE was against the measure, saying the test is a good measure of quality teachers.

No elected school board; no state charter commission

A bill calling for an elected school board in Chicago has repeatedly been introduced in Springfield — and has failed repeatedly. The bill called this legislative session met the same fate.

Chicago’s Board of Education is appointed by the mayor. During her campaign, new Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she supported an elected school board, but she put a hold on the latest bill that passed the House. Lightfoot said she wants a smaller board than what the bill called for, calling the proposed 21-member board a “recipe for disaster.”

Also during her campaign, Lightfoot supported the end of the Illinois State Charter School Commission. That panel has the power to overrule a local school board’s decision to reject a charter school. Since 2011, the commission has overruled decisions involving 12 charter schools, including eight in Chicago. It now oversees those 12 schools. The bill to eliminate the charter commission passed the General Assembly on Friday and the governor has said he’ll sign it.

After it becomes law, the Illinois State Board of Education will take over supervision of those 12 charter schools. It also will hear appeals of decisions made by local school boards to close charter schools in their areas.

There will be no appeals route for potential charter operators if a local school district rejects a proposal for a new charter school. However, under this new law charter school operators can try to open a charter school by putting the question to voters via a referendum.

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

Education reporters Adriana Cardona-Maguigad and Sarah Karp contributed.