Private schools across the Chicago region and Illinois have shared a common problem for years: How to help struggling families afford tuition.
A ground-breaking state education funding law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner last week may give those families and schools a lifeline in the form of a private school scholarship program that is already stirring controversy.
Some fear the program will siphon tax money from public schools. But private school educators praise the new law, saying low to moderate-income families will have a chance at getting partial to full scholarships at religious and non-religious independent schools.
The five-year program that starts in 2018 could potentially grow to at least a half billion dollars in scholarships. Annual awards could be as high as around $13,000 for many students, though most scholarships would likely be far lower because tuition at parochial schools generally is less than that. Students in the lowest income brackets will have first dibs on the awards.
“I think it really empowers folks of lower income groups to see that they have a choice when it comes to their kids’ education,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich, who heads the sprawling Archdiocese of Chicago and advocated for the private scholarship program while also supporting public education funding reforms.
The archdiocese pours millions of dollars into its schools and nonprofits already give out scholarships for Catholic school students, Cupich said. “We, however, can only do so much,” he said.
The private school scholarships “will be a great help for those kids who cannot pay (private tuition),” Cupich told the Tribune.
The private scholarships could be a boon for the Chicago archdiocese, which has seen dropping and flattening enrollment over the decades. This school year, about 78,000 students are enrolled in Catholic schools in Cook and Lake counties. It was almost 190,000 in 1980, according data from the archdiocese.
The scholarship program already faces schisms between public and private education school systems, teacher unions and advocates for school “choice,” as well as among lawmakers in Springfield, many of whom reluctantly approved the private scholarships as part of a broad package of public school financing reforms.
In the lexicon of education, “choice” has become an incendiary word. Advocacy groups favor choice options, such as using public dollars called vouchers so parents can send kids to private schools. But critics say vouchers and so-called tax credit scholarship programs take away money from public schools. In fact, the Chicago Teachers Union called such programs an “assault” on public education.
And now that Illinois has linked broad tax credits and private schools for the first time, some fear a slippery slope toward the privatization of public education and further disparity between those with the financial means for education — scholarships or otherwise — and those without.
The Illinois program is a tax credit plan. Corporate and individual donors can make contributions for private school scholarships and then get a 75 percent state tax credit, up to $1 million. That affects public education because state income taxes in large part are used for public schools in Illinois. When a donor gets a tax credit, it reduces their state income taxes, a portion of which would otherwise go into state coffers and then be sent to public school districts.
And the numbers can add up. The cap on tax credits in the program is $75 million per year, meaning $100 million in donations would be needed to get to that cap. With the scholarship program extending five years, the credits could potentially rise to $375 million through 2023, based on $500 million of donations.
Whether donations will reach that amount is unclear, but private educators are hopeful.
At the Chicago West Side Christian School, co-principal Jeralyn Harris said, “I’ve been here 21 years and I’ve learned that schools in this area don’t really serve all children well. Parents don’t have a choice (to send kids elsewhere). Their income doesn’t allow them to. They are stuck in whatever they can get in their neighborhoods.”
When Chicago Public Schools closed several dozen grade schools a few years back, some students enrolled at the Christian school. Tuition, now at $4,000, was unaffordable for some families, even with donations raised by the school to offset costs, Harris said. Enrollment has dropped to 162 students, the lowest in several years.
West Side Christian supported a coalition of private schools and other organizations, including some trade unions and police and firefighter groups, in pushing for the private scholarship program.
“My biggest thing about this whole type of funding is that it’s not taking away from public school students,” Harris said. “CPS is struggling to manage its case load. If you have support from private schools … then that is helping CPS.”
At Loyola Academy, a private Jesuit high school in Wilmette, about 30 percent of students enrolled get some level of financial aid and the school is expected to spend about $4 million this year on tuition assistance, said the Rev. Patrick McGrath, president of the academy.
McGrath said Loyola students come from 90 different zip codes, and about 40 percent of enrollment is made up of Chicago kids. “Some kids will get a full scholarship and some families are getting a little to get over the hump,” McGrath said. The school raises money and has an endowment to generate income for tuition assistance.
That doesn’t mean the academy couldn’t use some help. McGrath was supportive of the scholarship plan and reached out to some lawmakers, as did Cardinal Cupich.
“It looks like a program to help Catholic schools, but it is really not just for Catholic schools,” McGrath said. “I do believe it has a benefit to all kids. If a kid has that option (to attend a private school), why not let them pursue it?”
Even so, McGrath said, he was surprised the plan was approved by the General Assembly, given the various budget stalemates and other challenges in Springfield.
“I’ve lived my whole life in Illinois and I’ve been a school administrator for about 20 years, and I never thought it would make it through.”
Nearly 20 states, along with Illinois, now have a tax credit scholarship program, according to Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, a nonprofit that advocates for school choice programs and tracks those initiatives across the country.
Bedrick said that one area where the Illinois program differs from most is testing.
The new Illinois law requires schools that accept scholarship students in the program to test those kids in the same way that public school children take state exams, starting in 2019-20. Public school students in grades three to eight take math and reading exams called PARCC, as well as state science exams in certain grades, including in high school. In addition, Illinois juniors now also take a college entrance exam as part of the roster of statewide exams.
It’s not clear yet if those will be the exams taken by scholarship kids in private schools; an Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman said the agency is still analyzing all parts of the law.
Advocates for the scholarship program weren’t necessarily thrilled about the requirement for statewide exams. “It wasn’t our preference,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of Catholic Conference of Illinois, which was active in working to approve the law. He said another type of assessment could have been an option.
Bedrick, of EdChoice, said the group recommends a menu of test options rather than imposing one test.
“State testing mandates can create a strong incentive to follow the state curriculum,” he said. “If that’s what families want, they have hundreds of district schools to choose from. But often parents are looking for something different than what district schools are offering, so it doesn’t make sense to require the same testing regime for both systems.”
The new Illinois law requires that private schools report the scores on the exams, as well as track academic progress, so the state can compare the progress of the scholarship kids with public school students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Still unclear is how many scholarships will be given out. Advocates estimated a range of 6,000 to 20,000 student scholarships in a given year. But that will depend on total donations each year.
Those numbers are far smaller than Florida’s program, the largest tax credit scholarship program in the country. More than 100,000 students are getting scholarships this year, said Doug Tuthill, president of the nonprofit Step Up For Students scholarship funding organization. He said his program’s tax credit is dollar for dollar, 100 percent — not 75 percent of a donation in Illinois.
In Illinois, families won’t get any of the donations. Nonprofit “scholarship granting organizations” will divvy up the scholarships. Donors can start getting tax credits Jan. 1, according to the new law.
The new law says the scholarship amounts would be either the average per-pupil operating expense for public schools — which, according to ISBE data, was $12,973 in 2015-16 — or the costs and fees at a private school, whichever is less. Students with disabilities could get double the scholarship amount, and English learners and gifted kids could also get more, about $15,000, if the analysis is based on average per-pupil spending in public schools.
Priority goes to students who are in households with income no higher than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which this year would be $45,510 for a family of four, according to federal data. Students who had a scholarship the year before or are a sibling of a scholarship student will also be given priority.
Families wanting scholarships for their kids cannot exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level, meaning $73,800 for a family of four. Once a child gets a scholarship, the threshold can rise in ensuing years to 400 percent of poverty level, or $98,400 for a family of four. That increase allows family earners to accept pay raises while the children retain scholarship eligibility.
Students whose family income is less than 185 percent of the poverty level would get 100 percent of the scholarship amount. Students whose family income is between 185 percent but less than 250 percent — between $45,510 and below $61,500 — would get on average get 75 percent of the scholarship amount.
And kids who family income is 250 percent or higher would on average get 50 percent of the scholarship.
Families should apply by March 31 to be considered for a scholarship based on priority. Those who apply after April 1 will not be considered based on priority.
To Stacy Davis Gates, the political/legislative director at the Chicago Teachers Union, all of the numbers mean less for public schools.
“The constitutionality of this is precarious in our evaluation of it,” Gates said about the new law. Union attorneys are now reviewing the language.
But school choice advocates, such as Tuthill of the Florida program, say tax credit scholarship programs have passed legal muster, and they often expand.
“Politically, once you start a program and get families on it, it’s really hard to stop,” Tuthill said.