News Local/State

Private School Official Says Tax Credit Scholarship Program Is Rushed

White board with school funding written on it.

The application process for a controversial tax credit scholarship program for private schools is set to open at the end of this month. The program is part of the school funding formula measure passed last year. Carter Staley / NPR Illinois

Private school scholarships for low-income students will be allocated on a first come, first serve basis, and the application process is set to open at the end of this month. At least one private school official says he wishes that launch date were delayed to give schools more time to educate staff and the parent community about the process.

The controversial scholarship program is called Invest in Kids. It was created as part of the state’s historic school funding reform measure passed last year. The intent of the program is offer private school scholarships to low-income students. Those who donate to the program – or a specific private school – receive a tax credit worth 75 percent of donations up to $1 million.  

Speaking on Illinois Public Media’s daily talk show, The 21st, superintendent of the Lutheran School Association of Decatur, Jeff Holmes, said up until this week he hadn’t even seen the applications. Holmes says he’ll receive training this week to help parents properly fill out the applications from Empower Illinois, a third-party non-profit tasked with distributing the scholarship funding. Empower Illinois initially planned to open up the application process on Jan. 24, according to Holmes, but the launch was pushed back to Jan. 31. Empower Illinois will distribute $32 million in scholarship money, according to a report in the Herald and Review.

Holmes said the non-profit will need to notify families who had received scholarships under the program, but he was unsure when those notifications would occur. According to the Illinois Department of Revenue, the scholarship granting organizations must begin awarding scholarships no later than Feb. 1. 

Holmes said he wished the application process had been delayed at least a month longer, especially because these scholarships won’t apply until the next school year. He said the private school has done a good job communicating with families who receive financial assistance from the school about the scholarship program, but “the ability to get that word out is somewhat lacking, and that’s due to the fact we’ve rushed this so quickly to get it out there.” He’s worried low-income students who could benefit from the program might miss out.

The scholarship tax credit program and the school funding formula are back in the news and on legislative agendas due to an amendatory veto issued by Gov. Rauner earlier this month on a crucial trailer bill. The bill, SB 444, was designed to fix errors created in the drafting of the original school funding formula. Without that legislation in place, 178 school districts could lose funding promised to them under the new school funding formula, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. 

Rauner wrote in his veto message that he wanted the General Assembly to approve language that would make it easier for more private schools to participate in the tax credit program. As it stands, only schools that are “recognized” by ISBE are able to participate in the scholarship program. Schools that are only “registered” with the state agency are excluded from the program.

“I’m 100 percent in favor and unequivocally unwavering in my support of Governor Rauner’s amendatory veto,” said State Rep. LaShawn Ford, a Democrat from Chicago who spoke on The 21st. He says the tax credit program is “clearly not fair and equitable” and leaves out many private schools, particularly those that serve communities of color.  

“I’m hoping schools that serve black families and Latino families have an opportunity to be vetted to the fullest and meet the standards of this tax credit program,” Ford says. 

Holmes said he’s in favor of allowing more schools access to the program so long as they are all held to the same standards. Private schools recognized by ISBE must meet stricter criteria and are vetted more rigorously than schools that are simply registered with the state agency.