Q&A: The Controversy Over The Tax Credit Scholarship Program | WBEZ
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Q&A: The Controversy Over The Tax Credit Scholarship Program

A compromise plan to end the political impasse over Illinois school funding cleared the state House Monday night -- but not without some hand-wringing over a controversial provision that critics likened to school vouchers.

The bill, which still needs approval from the state Senate and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, primarily overhauls the way the state doles out money to schools. But much of the hullabaloo on the House floor Monday centered around a so-called tax credit scholarship program that Republicans wanted to see in the deal. 

Here’s a look at how the program works.

What is the new tax credit scholarship program?

It’s a taxpayer-funded $75 million scholarship program that would provide some 6,000 Illinois students scholarship money every year to attend the private school of their choice.

How does it work?

Illinois taxpayers who make a donation to an approved nonprofit “scholarship granting organization” would receive a tax credit worth 75 cents for every dollar they donate, up to a maximum credit of $1 million. Donors would be able to direct their contribution to a particular school or group of schools (but not to a particular student). The scholarship organizations would determine who gets scholarships.

Why is it controversial?

The program is controversial because every dollar donated to the scholarship programs is 75 cents less in tax revenue to the state. So taxpayer money that would otherwise go to state coffers to pay for things like roads and schools is diverted to help pay for tuition at private schools. Teacher unions in particular opposed the plan. Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey called the tax credits a “time bomb” for public schools that “would allow people who don’t want to pay their taxes to send their money to the private school that their kid goes to instead.”

Who would qualify for a scholarship?

Illinois students whose families earn up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level -- or $73,800 a year for a family of four -- could qualify to enter the program. Students could stay in the program as long as their family doesn’t earn over 400 percent of poverty level -- $98,400 for a family of four. They could attend any non-public school of their choice.

But the program would prioritize lower-income students, students in struggling school districts, current scholarship recipients and their siblings. The bill defines struggling school districts as those with at least one school that scores in the bottom 10 percent on state tests, or with a graduation rate under 60 percent. Democratic leaders say 89 school districts would qualify as struggling, including Chicago Public Schools.

How much are the scholarships worth?

The scholarships would be worth either the cost of tuition and fees at the private school, or the state’s average operational expense per student (in 2015 that was $12,821) — whichever is less. Families earning less than 185 percent of the poverty level ($45,510 for a family of four) would get a full scholarship. Families earning more money would qualify for half scholarships or three-quarter scholarships.

The Illinois plan would be the first such program in the nation to offer more generous scholarships to certain students with greater needs. For instance, special education students could get scholarships worth twice as much as other kids -- a provision that could help assuage complaints that private schools turn away special needs students.

Why haven’t I heard about this tax scholarship program before?

Before Monday, the program was never presented as a stand-alone bill to be debated by lawmakers -- another point of controversy among opponents. It was introduced during closed-door negotiations between Republicans and Democrats over the school funding overhaul Rauner vetoed. School choice advocates in the state have been working on tax credit scholarship legislation for at least two years.

Linda Lutton reports on education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation.

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