Every day, hundreds of kids walk through the doors of St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic school on Chicago’s Southwest Side. They march up the stairs and into classrooms, where they start their day with morning prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s been like that for decades.
But this year, for the first time, 30 St. Mary’s students are getting taxpayer help to pay for their parochial school education. They’re among more than 5,600 students statewide to receive one of Illinois’ first “tax credit scholarships.” Tens of thousands of students applied this year for the controversial new program, which is funded by Illinoisans who “donate” the taxes they owe to authorized scholarship groups.
Opponents criticize the program for diverting tax dollars from government coffers, including money that could support public schools.
For the schools and kids in this new program, tax credit scholarships work like school vouchers, giving students up to $12,973 this year in help paying for tuition and fees.
“Even back when I was a kid my parents were always hoping and looking for some way to afford Catholic education,” said St. Mary Star of the Sea Principal Candice Usauskas, who sat in the school’s same classrooms as a student. “My mom wasn’t working, my dad was the only one putting us through. And I’m so excited that we finally have this support for families, not only in Catholic schools, but any kind of a private school.”
Usauskas still lives nearby, and the West Lawn neighborhood is as heavily Catholic as it was when she was a girl, though Latinos have replaced many of the Eastern European immigrants who were here before.
“In this neighborhood — we have really, really strong family commitment to Catholic education, but we need help. Car payments, rent, mortgage, whatever — it is expensive. And even preschool tuition can be up there,” Usauskas said.
You don’t need to tell Salvador Hernandez that. He has four children at St. Mary’s – and four tuitions. Full price for one child is $5,225. “It goes without saying that it’s always a sacrifice,” said Hernandez, a business analyst whose wife is a stay-at-home mom.
Both attended Catholic schools growing up — Hernandez went to a Catholic university — and the couple wanted to know their oldest son, who knew all his prayers before preschool, would have his faith developed at school. They’ve never looked back, though it’s meant gradually mounting tuition payments as more of their kids have entered school.
When he found out about Illinois’ new tax credit scholarships, Hernandez was one of the first to apply. He spearheaded a campaign to get the word out at the parish and helped other families apply.
Then came the good news: the Hernandez family was awarded three partial scholarships (they didn’t qualify for the fourth because their youngest child is still in preschool).
It’s cut his tuition bill by thousands of dollars, and Principal Usauskas says the new scholarships help stabilize the school. They’ve been called a “lifeline” for struggling Catholic schools.
“It’s not just the immediate family who gets that money. It spreads itself into the school, it spreads the school’s ability to help other families, it just keeps going and going,” Usauskas said. “It’s very important.”
28 percent of scholarship winners are not low-income
Illinois’ tax-credit scholarships have been talked about as a way to help low-income students go to schools they couldn’t otherwise afford.
But WBEZ has found that many of the scholarship recipients were already in private schools, and so far, 28 percent would not be considered low-income. (The Hernandez family is among that group.) A family of six can make up to $99,000 annually and still win tuition help.
That’s one of the things that makes the program controversial. Another is what’s broadly seen as the state’s failure to adequately fund public education in Illinois.
“Public education is the right of every student here ... and that should be number one,” said state Senator Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Plainfield. She sponsored a bill last session that would have pulled the plug on the brand-new tax credit scholarships unless lawmakers gave increases to public schools.
Bertino-Tarrant attended Catholic school, donates to Catholic schools, and was a teacher and administrator in both Catholic and public schools.
“It’s never been about [not wanting] to help these private schools or Catholic schools,” she said. However, “I think it is a reasonable bill to say we have to fund public education before we can give people tax credits.”
Bertino-Tarrant is still upset about how the Invest in Kids program was passed — without a single legislative hearing, tucked into a historic public school funding bill at the last minute a year ago. Democratic legislative leaders went along with that, including Illinois Speaker of the House Mike Madigan, whose district includes St. Mary Star of the Sea.
Madigan has definitely met Principal Usauskas. She ran into him recently at a community event.
“I made a beeline,” Usauskas said. “I said, ‘You know, we need this, thank you, keep supporting it.’ The children sent him thank you cards. It was a big deal when this happened.”
Principal Usauskas does not believe public schools are being hurt by the tax credit scholarships.
“I’ve heard that some people believe that,” she said. “I don’t see how it does, because we’re not taking anything away. This money was donated specifically for these tax credit scholarships.”
Of course, what people are donating is up to $75 million dollars that would otherwise go to the state as income tax, money that would then fund roads, health care, and public schools. More than $33 million in tax dollars have been diverted so far this year.
Funding both public and private schools
It looks like Catholic schools will be the biggest beneficiaries of the new tax credit scholarships in Illinois. But others will benefit too. The Universal School in southwest suburban Bridgeview has 45 scholarship winners, all low-income, about 40 percent of them new to the Islamic school. The superintendent there, Safaa Zarzour, says there’s no reason the state should only fund public schools.
“You can do both,” Zarzour said. “You can adequately fund public education, at the same time be able to make sure that students who live in areas where the public school is not fulfilling their need, to be able to have better options. I think you can do both.”
Ryan Quigley agrees. The admissions director at Joliet Catholic Academy, where three students won tax credit scholarships, says everyone seems to be OK with public funding for private preschools or private colleges.
“We have Catholic Charities running Head Start programs and there isn’t a statewide debate about it, or people that are against it,” Quigley said. He notes that federal Pell grants and state MAP grants pay for tuition at private colleges.
“Yet, when it comes to K-12 education, it was taboo,” Quigley said. He says he’s still surprised the law passed.
When it comes to funding public education, Illinois has not been a model. The Illinois State Board of Education has said in order to give every public school student just an “adequate” education, Illinois would have to immediately double state funding.
And critics of vouchers and tax credit scholarships say cities or states with private school choice provisions can see a slow erosion of public school institutions.
Kevin Welner, education professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder who wrote a book on tax credit scholarships, says the programs often start small, then grow.
“So there’s a ‘camel’s nose under the tent’ element to the first bill. And then you start to see an expansion, not just in terms of the amount of money going toward the plan, but also in terms of which kids are eligible,” Welner said.
Income limits might be raised, Welner says. Or children whose parents are in the military are added.
“You have a variety of different ways it could be scaled up, until you get to a larger and larger and larger system, and then it really does start to affect the public institutions,” he said.
Illinois’ program is supposed to sunset in five years. Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has said he’ll end it sooner if he’s elected — a position he’s been attacked for by Gov. Bruce Rauner, his Republican opponent in the November election.
Meanwhile, school leaders like Principal Usauskas are already working to keep the program. And with every additional taxpayer donation, and every additional scholarship family, the tax credit scholarship program gains more supporters.
Listen to On Background: WBEZ's Politics Podcast for a discussion between WBEZ reporters Linda Lutton and Becky Vevea about the state’s tax credit scholarship program.