FILE - Sister Jean, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich promote tax-credit scholarships

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich and Loyola University’s Sr. Jean Dolores-Schmidt promote the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships available to non-public school students in Illinois.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker is formally asking lawmakers to shut down Illinois’ private school scholarship program and pour more money into public schools.

In his budget proposal Wednesday, Pritzker proposes taking the $100 million cap on donations to the Invest in Kids private school scholarship program and cutting it down to $50 million, $11 million less than what was donated in the program’s first year. He proposed to phase it out over the next three years.

As part of the overhaul of Illinois’ education funding formula in 2017, lawmakers added the five-year Invest in Kids pilot program, which grants a 75 percent income tax credit to those who donate scholarship funds for private schools. Officials with the program said most of the donations were for less than $1,000 and from individual donors.

“The governor is proposing to phase out the program over the next three years so that the state can direct its limited revenues to funding its commitments to public schools first,” according to the proposal.

Defunding of the program would have to come from an agreed upon bill from the General Assembly but only requiring a simple majority.

Empower Illinois is the largest Invest in Kids scholarship granting organization in the state. Executive Director Anthony Holter said he hopes lawmakers see the value in the program, which has helped thousands of primarily low-income students go to a private school of their choice.

“This sends shudders through the parent community [and] the donor community who want to know the future of the program,” he said.

Holter has said in the past that the uncertainty of the scholarship program had a chilling effect on donations. Donors, he said, were unsure about whether they would get the tax credit and parents unsure whether they would be able to afford their child’s new school.

More than 40,000 students applied for scholarship funds through the program in 2018. The program raised $61 million statewide that year, a national record for the first year of this kind of program, and paid the private school tuition for more than 6,700 students. Pritzker’s administration estimated that ending the pilot program would put $6 million into the state’s coffers.

Pritzker said he opposed using tax revenue to subsidize private schools when he said Illinois does such a poor job of funding public schools, the Sun-Times reported.

“I want to make sure that we are fully funding our public schools before we turn to funding private schools and providing tax credits for wealthy people in the state,” Pritzker told the newspaper. “So we are cutting back on that program, making sure that we’re providing the tax credit funding for the kids who are already taking advantage of it, but scaling it back so that we’re taking those dollars and applying them to public schools.”

Holter said Pritzker’s assertion that the funding for the scholarships could be put into public schools is misleading.

“It’s not like there’s a big $100 million or $75 million pool of money out there that we’ve taken from some other pot of money,” he said. “We work hard to make sure that the story of [this program's] importance and impact is out there so that these private citizens feel inspired to give.”

Lawmakers filed legislation last year that would have barred paying out tuition or granting any tax rebates until every public school in the state was given adequate funding as dictated by the Illinois State Board of Education. It would have inevitably ended the program because the state is far from reaching ISBE’s set funding level adequacy.

Staff Writer

Cole Lauterbach reports on Illinois government and statewide issues for Illinois News Network and Watchdog.org. He has produced radio shows for stations in Bloomington/Normal and Peoria, and created award-winning programs for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.