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School Vouchers For Broad Swath of Families On The Table In School Funding Fight

Updated at 9:48 a.m. Aug. 5

Roughly 67 percent of Illinois families could qualify to send their children to private schools using diverted taxpayer money under a proposal being considered by legislators attempting to break a stalemate that’s threatening school funding on the eve of a new academic year, WBEZ has learned. 

WBEZ obtained a copy of the draft proposal from a school voucher advocate who said he met with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner about the plan four days before Rauner’s Aug. 1 partial veto of an overhaul of the formula that Illinois uses to dole out state money to schools. A Rauner spokeswoman did not immediately confirm the meeting happened. 

The $100 million tuition tax credit program, which opponents call a school voucher program, is being discussed by state lawmakers in closed-door negotiations surrounding Rauner’s veto. Any family of four earning up to $113,775 would qualify for a scholarship under this plan.

Thanks to a provision buried in the recently-passed state budget, Illinois can’t dole out education money unless it approves a new funding formula. That means schools could be left in the lurch until the the veto fight is resolved. The first payments are scheduled to go out Aug. 10, but a deal isn’t expected by then. 

In negotiations over the school funding bill, Republican lawmakers have listed a few key items they want in return for their support, including this tax credit program. Teachers unions and many Democrats traditionally oppose vouchers because they divert taxpayer dollars that could go to public education.

The plan’s backers have dubbed it the “Invest in Kids Act,” and it’s being pushed by advocates who support drastic changes to the way in which students select their schools in Illinois. 

Under the draft proposal reviewed by WBEZ, individual taxpayers could choose to send up to $1 million annually to scholarship organizations rather than to the state Department of Revenue. Those diverted taxpayer dollars would fund scholarships to pay tuition cost at private or parochial schools, or to pay the cost for a public school education in a district outside a child’s community. 

All told, the state could dole out $100 million annually in tax credits to finance this scholarship program. If the scholarship fund attracts at least $90 million in donations in any year, it would grow to $125 million. It could continue to grow by 25 percent annually, with no cap, as long as taxpayers send at least 90 percent of the maximum allowed to the fund. Donors could direct their money to a specific school, rather than a specific student, and some eligible students could be turned away. 

The proposal is striking in its reach. Any family of four earning up to $113,775 annually would be eligible for a scholarship. In Illinois, 67 percent of families of two or more people earn up to $100,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data. 

Another 18 percent of Illinois families earn up to $150,000. The median income is $71,500 for an Illinois family of at least two people, which is how the federal government defines a family. 

The tax credit voucher proposal was never introduced in the General Assembly but resurfaced as a bargaining chip during talks over the school funding bill impasse. It was first reported on nearly two years ago by WBEZ. 

The governor’s veto at the heart of that impasse has established a showdown in which lawmakers may vote to override the governor’s changes. But both sides have said they would prefer to work out a compromise, in which the tax scholarship program has entered the talks.

“I am excited and hopeful that as part of a compromise, if one is worked out, that that would include tuition tax credits. I am a strong supporter of that,” Rauner said at a news conference Tuesday after partially vetoing the school funding bill. He did not answer a reporter’s follow-up question about whether he would only sign off on a larger school funding deal deal if lawmakers pass a tax scholarship program. 

Lead negotiators for Democrats have not discussed details about the closed-door negotiations this week. But on Wednesday during an appearance on WBEZ’s Morning Shift, Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, said Republicans were looking for Democrats to work with them on a few key issues, and he singled out a proposal to provide “tax credits for scholarships to attend schools that are more in line with the needs of the child.”

On Friday night, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said negotiations are fluid. 

“From my perspective, the scholarship program is important,” Durkin said.

Anthony Daniels-Halisi, the advocate who shared the tax credit scholarship document with WBEZ, is the acting president at Hales Franciscan High School in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. 

He said he supports advocating for the scholarship program to allow more low-income African-Americans to attend his school. Hales Franciscan closed last year because of a lack of fundraising, Daniels-Halisi said, but he’s reopening the school next month for a class of 50 freshmen.

“The biggest challenge, of course, is just being able to make sure that students who want to come to our school have the resources to come to get what we uniquely provide,” Daniels-Halisi said.

Invest in Kids Act Aug 2017 by Chicago Public Media on Scribd

Earlier version of Invest in Kids Act, Oct 2015

Tony Arnold covers Illinois state politics for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @tonyjarnold

Linda Lutton contributed to this report. She covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation

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