In her Oct. 30th Daily Line guest commentary the principal of a private religious school asserts that scholarships for private school tuition will disappear if the Illinois’ voucher program sunsets as scheduled after this school year. But her anecdote about her own scholarship from the Big Shoulders Fund belies the fact that scholarships for private school tuition, and Big Shoulders itself, existed long before the General Assembly passed the Invest in Kids Act in 2017, creating a tax credit scholarship voucher scheme as part of the compromise that also revamped how we fund public schools in Illinois.
Scholarships won’t need to end just because the tax credit ends. Future donors who believe in private schools’ missions should not need the incentive of a 75% state tax credit to continue to be generous in their support of scholarships since after sunset they can deduct donations from their federal tax bill.
What won’t exist if the law sunsets is 5% for operating costs that the scholarship granting organizations (SGOs) like Big Shoulders and Empower Illinois are skimming off the top of the Invest in Kids dollars to use for their own activities, including lobbying. The ads, glossy mailings, and yard signs throughout the state, along with busload after busload of students and families in Springfield, is paid for in large part by tax dollars diverted to SGOs, almost $17 million since 2018.
What the ubiquitous “Save Our Scholarship” campaign literature has failed to share with legislators and the public:● How many students are financially qualified to receive vouchers but unable to use them because they could not find a private school willing to accept students who are LGBTQ+ or whose parents are, who need English-language learner (ELL) or special education services, who are pregnant or parenting, or who are undocumented?● How many students receiving vouchers never attended public school previously? There is no data on Illinois’ program, but based on other states where such data exists, about eight in ten students receiving vouchers have never attended public school..● What are the rates of graduation, attendance, and exclusionary discipline at schools receiving vouchers? All of this data and far more is available on every Illinois public school. The Illinois State Board of Education is only required under the Invest in Kids Act to issue annual reports on the test scores of voucher recipients, but six years in, there have been none.● How many contributors to the SGOs have taken advantage of the ability to donate appreciated stock to avoid paying capital gains on top of the extraordinarily generous state tax credit of 75%, something no other type of charity in Illinois is able to offer donors?
Just blocks south of St. Francis de Sales, Chicago’s East Side neighborhood high school, George Washington High School, is overcrowded, in need of $45 million of renovations—some quite direly, and short $3,197/student in state aid this year. This public school serves 18% students with IEPs and 27% English-language learners (ELLs).
In contrast, St. Francis de Sales reported serving no special education students to the Illinois State Board of Education in 2022-2023. ISBE does not collect data on ELLs at private schools, but there is no mention on SFDS’ website of services for bilingual students or ELLs.
Like our parks and streets, public schools are a public good, available to all and beneficial to our entire society, not just students and their families. We pay taxes to support these key parts of our community fabric, and especially to support our public schools, which are so fundamental to the future of our pluralist democracy. Unlike religious schools, even those getting public dollars via Invest in Kids, public schools cannot discriminate on the basis of disability status, sexual orientation and gender identity, English proficiency and immigration status.
Nine out of ten school-aged children in Illinois attend public schools, almost half of them from low-income households, but over 80% of our public school districts are not adequately funded according to our state’s funding formula.
This is why more than 60 local, state and national organizations are calling on the General Assembly to end Illinois’ voucher program, including the League of Women Voters, the Illinois State Conference NAACP, Equality Illinois, Access Living, and the ACLU of IL. Public funds should go to public schools, and the General Assembly should fulfill the letter and the spirit of our state constitution by ending the diversion of tax dollars to religious schools and fulfilling their responsibility as the primary funder of a high-quality system of public schools.
Dr. Cassie Creswell is the executive director of Illinois Families for Public Schools, a statewide grassroots public education advocacy group, and parent of a Chicago Public Schools student. Dr. Diane Horwitz is a retired educator, board member of Illinois Families for Public Schools, and an alum of Chicago Public Schools.
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