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. 2 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.
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 voucher programs because they divert taxpayer dollars from 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. 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.
“From my perspective, the scholarship program is important. I would characterize the negotiations as fluid.” LEADER DURKIN
I’m looking into that meeting but don’t have details or confirmation yet. Here is what I can provide:
As Gov. Rauner mentioned on Tuesday during the press conference, he is open to considering a tax credit scholarship program and has long been an advocate for school choice. The governor’s focus is on enacting a fairer funding system for all children in Illinois, by providing for resources that ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education that will prepare them for both college and career.
RAUNER ON TUESDAY AT PRESS CONFERENCE AFTER AV WAS ISSUED:
“I have been an advocate, strong advocate for school choice my whole life. I believe that parents who do not have financial resources still deserve to be able to choose a school that fits their child the best. I applaud the General Assembly for including equitable funding for charter schools in SB1. I have left that language in place. That is good language. I applaud them for that. I have been an advocate for (a) tuition tax credit program for years. In fact, I included language to that effect in my budget proposal. 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.”
ANDY MANAR ON THURSDAY PRESS CONFERENCE IN SPRINGFIELD:
“I’m gonna put a little bit of definition around negotiations but I’m not going to reveal details because I think that would be turning my back on those discussions which I’m not gonna do. We’re talking about all kinds of things. What we have said to our Republican counterparts is, ‘Let’s have a conversation about what it’s gonna take to fix that.’ We think Senate Bill one should be the law of the State of Illinois. Despite the governor’s actions on Tuesday, we still believe Senate Bill One should be the law. It’s a good bill. It represents good public policy. What is it gonna take to get you to a point to help us do that. We’re hoping that some reasonable folks will step forward and will join in that conversation. That conversation is ongoing. So if there’s something constructive that is reasonable, it’s not going to be rejected by the Democrats.”
BARICKMAN ON MORNING SHIFT WEDNESDAY:
“I think people are becoming more known of some of the things that have been talked about in the last few days. The notion that there would be mandate relief. The idea that you give school districts more flexibility in how they spend their money. Other issues, like creating an opportunity for children throughout the state to receive tax credits for scholarships to attend schools that are more in line with the needs of the child. So Republicans have offered suggestions to Democrats of issues that we would be interested in negotiating on but we have yet to hear from Democrats their willingness to embrace any of those ideas in a meaningful way that gives us as Republicans an opportunity to reach a bipartisan compromise and help Democrats, specifically help Chicago Democrats, with issues that they have in their district.”