One of the most important responsibilities of any state in the union is public education. In Illinois, the state constitution spells this out, and indeed, about 26% of the General Revenue Fund flows to the public elementary and secondary schools in every town. In turn, those public schools must serve every child, whatever religion their family practices, whatever language is spoken in the home, or whether their family is headed by parents of the same gender. The public schools must accommodate any disability that affects learning, and help all students achieve their potential.
Public schools, where people of all backgrounds come together to provide the tools for success to all children, are the bedrock of our democracy. Public schools serve as a key institution in many rural Illinois communities, and supporting publicschools is a wonderful investment in the future of our children and the strength of our state. But public education is under attack, and school voucher programs like the Invest in Kids “tax credit scholarship” are a harbinger of these destructive forces. Invest in Kids is a convoluted tax dodge created in 2017 to divert your hard-earned dollars to private religious schools at the expense of public schools, circumventing the separation of church and state. To be clear, contributions under this scholarship program—of up to a million dollars per donor—are not like charitable donations that are claimed as a deduction on one’s tax return. Charitable gifts to private schools are still available at the state and federal level to fund scholarships at private schools. Instead of deductions, Invest in Kids donors receive a tax credit, erasing any state taxes they owe, at the rate of 75 cents on the dollar. Donors are allowed to send their money to a particular private school,perhaps where their child has been attending for years, and in return the state gives them a much larger tax break than they could see with a charitable donation.
This ungainly and unseemly program is administered by “scholarship granting organizations” that are allowed to skim 5% off the top of the scholarship fund that benefits just 9,000 students. Meanwhile, more than half the state’s 1.9 million public school students attend schools so poorly funded by the state that they do not have even 70% of the resources that research shows are necessary to provide an adequate education. The $75 million diverted from the General Fund into the pockets of wealthy donors would be much better directed to increase the state’s contribution to the Evidence Based school funding formula, which efficientlytargets low-income students and students of color, and is still $7 billion short of full funding.
Research clearly shows that voucher programs do not improve student outcomes,and that many students who transfer into private schools later return to public schools, where they receive a more comprehensive education. Public schools, in contrast to private schools, cannot discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual preference or disability, are governed by elected boards, and must operate with transparency and public accountability. Most of the lawmakers who enacted this “scholarship” program of dubious value knew it was flawed, and so they put a 5-year limit on it. Everyone who has benefitted from the Invest in Kids program—the private schools, the SGOs, the deep pocket donors—knew from the outset that it was a time-limited sweet deal. The jig is now up. It is time to let the sun set on the Invest in Kids voucher program.
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