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Teachers Union Opposes Plan They Say Would Bring School Vouchers To Illinois

As Illinois lawmakers continue private talks to end a political impasse that’s holding up school funding, teachers unions are opposing one proposal that would divert state tax money to pay for private school tuition.

Lawmakers have begun privately discussing a $100 million voucher-like program that offers scholarships to students for tuition at private or parochial schools, or toward attending a public school located outside of their school districts. According to a draft proposal reviewed by WBEZ, the program would be funded through private donations from individual taxpayers and corporations. To help entice donors, the state would give them a tax credit, dollar for dollar, for their contributions, which are capped for each donor at $1 million annually. 

That tax credit has teachers unions throughout the state up in arms, because they say those tax dollars could theoretically go to public schools. 

“There has been no discussion. There has been no debate,” said Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association, a large teachers union. “And whenever something like that happens without having an open forum, it always questions what’s going on.”

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of two unions representing teachers outside of Chicago, opposes the program, said union spokeswoman Aviva Bowen. She said it would not help fund public education so “all students have access to high-quality schools.”

But it’s not only unions who have come out against the proposal. Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the Illinois Association of School Boards, which represents local school boards across the state, said his group has historically opposed vouchers. And he said adding scholarship tax credits to negotiations over a new school funding formula has “made a complicated matter more complicated.”

The potential scope of the program also worries some opponents. 

Any family of four earning up to $113,775 a year would be eligible for a scholarship. In Illinois that could encompass the 67 percent of families of two or more people that earn up to $100,000 a year, according to U.S. Census data. What’s more, if the program becomes successful, it can quickly expand beyond its initial $100 million. 

The debate comes as Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner defends his amendatory veto of a measure to overhaul the way the state distributes money to schools. A key provision in the state budget passed last month required a new education funding formula for schools to receive any state aid, so the fight over the funding formula bill also jeopardizes all state education funding.

The debate comes as schools might not receive their first state payments Thursday because negotiations over a new school funding formula continue.

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

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