Illinois school plan includes private scholarship tax credit

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The top Republicans in the Illinois Legislature said they expect the House to vote Monday on a school-funding overhaul they say will increase money for every district and provide $75 million in tax credits for people who donate to private school scholarships.

Republican and Democratic leaders have had days of closed-door meetings aimed at negotiating a bipartisan deal that would send state funds to more than 800 public school districts for the first time this school year.

GOP Rep. Jim Durkin said the agreement leaders put finishing touches on Monday morning includes some items lawmakers in each party won’t like, but that “on balance it’s a good bill for children in Illinois” and “we’ve got to get the job done.”

Democratic leaders have declined to comment. But some of Illinois’ largest teacher unions have already lined up against the measure, saying Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is using students “as leverage for private school tax credits.”

“Taxpayer dollars should be invested in our public school classrooms, plain and simple,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery said. “The governor’s proposal gives the wealthy another break while robbing our public schools of students and dollars.”

The legislation filed Monday provides a tax credit worth 75 percent of a taxpayer’s annual contributions to a scholarship fund, with a maximum credit of $1 million annually. The money may be donated to a specific school or “subset” of schools, but not to a specific student.

Students receiving the scholarships must have a total household income of less than 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $73,800 annually for a family of four. Religious leaders, including Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, have lobbied for the credit.

Public schools won’t get state money until there’s a new funding formula because the budget lawmakers approved last month requires it. There’s wide agreement the current 20-year-old formula is unfair, but Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on how to change it.

Earlier this year Democrats approved legislation that provided money to the state’s neediest districts first, and that provided additional funding to districts that serve larger numbers of students in poverty or who are English-language learners. Democrats said it closed huge disparities in per-student funding between wealthy and poor districts.

But Rauner used his veto authority to make changes to the legislation, saying it provided too much money to financially strapped Chicago Public Schools.

The Illinois Senate voted to override Rauner’s changes, with one Republican joining majority Democrats. The House put off a vote because of leaders’ negotiations on a fresh deal. An override requires a three-fifths majority. The House would need Republican support to succeed.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, has said that if they couldn’t reach a bipartisan agreement his chamber would hold an override vote on the original school funding bill. The deadline for the House to act on that legislation is Tuesday.

Rauner — a longtime supporter of private school voucher and other “school choice” programs — has given mixed signals about the latest deal. He initially praised leaders’ efforts but also said the agreement still contains too much money for Chicago Public Schools.

In the meantime, over 800 school districts are in limbo. While districts are opening on time, many say they won’t be able to last long without state funding.