Springfield Catholic schools are scrambling to raise money to provide scholarships to low-income students in the wake of legislative inaction.
At issue is a program that provided indirect state support for students attending private and religious schools.
The Invest in Kids program will sunset as scheduled on Dec. 31, meaning donors to six state-approved private school scholarship funds will no longer be able to claim a 75% tax credit for their donations. Program supporters had hoped that lawmakers would extend the life of the program with a vote during the legislature's veto session, but it ended Nov. 9 without any action being taken.
"We're disappointed at the lack of action by the legislature in not voting on this bill," said Bill Moredock, president of Sacred Heart-Griffin High School. "It means 9,600 students from low-income families across the state lost their scholarships. And here at Sacred Heart-Griffin, we have 19 students in the program."
Moredock said SHG remains committed to helping those students and finding a way to have them continue their studies at the Catholic high school.
Michael Carlson, principal of St. Patrick's Catholic School of Springfield, said most of the children attending his east-side school are receiving the scholarships.
"It's disappointing that it wasn't renewed, but St. Pat's has a very unique mission as a Catholic micro-school," he said. "Affordable Catholic education with high academic and character standards: that's our mission. ... I absolutely believe that if people believe that Catholic education should be affordable, they'll support St. Pat's, and we have a thriving donor community that does that."
Carlson said no child will be turned away solely for an inability to pay, but his school will have to step up its fundraising as the tax credit law expires.
Teachers unions and other opponents contend that the tax credits sucked money out of state coffers that could have been used to support public schools.
The Illinois Education Association issued a statement following the veto session. "It is a new day in Illinois. We are incredibly grateful to our lawmakers for choosing to end the voucher scheme known as Invest in Kids. This program sent millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools and was created under the guise of helping students of color, but we now know the funds went primarily to white students," IEA president Al Llorens said.
"The voucher system was intentionally created with a lack of oversight and accountability, leaving us with no data to measure its effectiveness. Public money belongs in public schools and we are glad our lawmakers believe that, too. Eighty percent of our public schools in Illinois are underfunded. We need to focus on providing the necessary funding to our public schools so that all children in Illinois continue to have access to a high-quality, public education," he said.
But proponents of the program say it enabled low-income children living in neighborhoods with failing public schools to have access to better learning opportunities.
The program has been capped at $75 million annually since its implementation in 2018.
Throughout the veto session, supporters of the program converged on the Capitol waving signs that read, "Protect our scholarships."
State Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield, said the bill is unlikely to be resurrected during next year's legislative session.
"I think that it's dead. I hope that that's not the case, but I think that it's dead. And it's pretty disappointing. Over the spring session and veto session there were lots and lots of kids, who are recipients of that scholarship program, who begged members of the Senate and members of the House to save their scholarships. And now they are going without those scholarships. One of the reasons I'm a state senator is to try to do good things. I don't know how anybody could have walked through that and then not (supported) them. It makes me feel bad."
State Senate Republican leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, told Illinois Times he still has hope the program will be revived.
"It is abhorrent that there are leaders in the legislature that are ignoring the pleas of these children and these families that are trying to save their educational opportunity – their preferred setting that they are excelling in educationally. We have to listen to these children and the parents who have been here and afford this choice to these low-income families – the same choice that I'm afforded and many of my colleagues are afforded."
Curran said opponents have lost sight of the children who will be hurt by eliminating the program.
"Well, it's a two-year General Assembly. The bill is still filed for the upcoming spring session. We go back in the third week of January. That would be the time to pass it. It would be a delay in the ability to raise money from donations for the program, but this program has had hurdles, and that would be a hurdle that I'm confident it could overcome if the General Assembly is willing to put ideology aside."
McClure said it is hypocritical for opponents of the legislation to send their kids to private schools but not want to offer the same opportunity to lower-income families.
"A lot of these legislators send their kids to private schools. A lot of those in the Chicago Teachers Union send their kids to private schools. And yet all of them didn't support this bill to let other kids who are in poor neighborhoods send their kids to private schools – despite the fact that the schools that they're attending are failing. The hypocrisy is incredible."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].