The compromise school funding bill that sits on the governor’s desk includes a provision that supporters say will encourage people to donate money to private schools to create scholarships for the families who can’t afford tuition there.
State leaders want to offer $75 million in tax credits for those donors, but they don’t currently have that money in the budget. Gov. Bruce Rauner said Wednesday they’ll need reforms to find a funding source.
The governor traveled Wednesday to schools from Springfield to Litchfield and Breese to praise the agreement on education funding reform that he said would send more money to small, rural and low-income school districts. The compromise bill passed in the Illinois House on Monday and in the Senate on Tuesday. Rauner said he plans to sign it Thursday.
During his stop at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Breese, Rauner said the state doesn’t currently have $75 million for tax credits.
“Here’s our biggest challenge: We still have an unbalanced budget,” Rauner said. “We’re still growing our unpaid bills. We are still in deficit even after a massive tax hike, which I vetoed because we haven’t really shrunk the bureaucracy. It takes legislative assistance to shrink the bureaucracy. So far, the General Assembly hasn’t supported me in those changes, so we’re just gonna keep working and try to do it.
“We can find the money if we prioritize education and not some of the other, more wasteful spending.”
The governor supports the new compromise plan and the tax credits for scholarship donors, in particular. He argues that it would expand the choices families have when it comes to educating their children.
“You know what? You’re very blessed,” Rauner told the gym full of Mater Dei students. “Your folks come up with ways to be able to pay for you to come to a wonderful school like Mater Dei. Well, many families can’t afford it. But really, parents deserve to be able to chose where their child can best be educated.”
We can find the money if we prioritize education and not some of the other, more wasteful spending.
Gov. Bruce Rauner
Opponents, such as teachers unions, have compared the provision to a voucher program, in which public money is given to parents to send their children to private or religiously affiliated schools if they want to. Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery has also criticized the donor tax credits, which he said benefit the wealthy “while working families continue to struggle.”
The governor said the intention was to help low-income families rather than wealthy individuals, and he doesn’t agree with the comparison to vouchers.
“It’s not really a voucher program; it’s a scholarship program,” Rauner said. “It’s just a pool of money being set up with people who can afford to donate to it who believe in school choice, and then those scholarships will be granted to students.”
Rauner, a successful businessman before he became governor, said he plans to be one of those donors.
“This scholarship program is something I’m personally going to donate to,” he said. “I want to help enhance the tuition for you and other students around the state who would like to choose to go to a parochial school or a private school if your family is not able to do it.”
Principal Dennis Litteken said Mater Dei would be able to accommodate an increase in enrollment if local families took advantage of the scholarship program.
State Rep. John Cavaletto, R-Salem, who previously worked as a dean of students and coach at Mater Dei, said he remembers a time when the school had 1,120 students. Litteken said Mater Dei’s enrollment today is 400 students. Tuition costs families $5,361, according to Litteken.
Cavaletto and state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, joined the governor on his trip to Breese. Cavaletto credited Rauner with adding the provision that provides tax credits and creates the scholarship program.
“I want to thank you, governor, for putting that in,” Cavaletto said. “I know a lot of people down here will be very happy about it.”
Parents would need a household income of about $73,000 per year for a family of four for their child to be eligible for a scholarship under the plan.
Cavaletto and Meier were among the local representatives who changed their votes on the compromise plan and helped it pass on the House’s second attempt.
The bill didn’t receive support from any metro-east representatives the first time around Monday. But then an attempt to override the governor’s veto on the original school funding legislation failed in the House.
Cavaletto, Meier and state Reps. Dan Beiser, D-Alton; Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea; and Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, all voted in favor of the bill when the House considered the compromise plan a second time Monday.
Meier praised the bill during the visit to Mater Dei with Rauner.
“This bill will make Illinois schools better,” Meier said. “It will put our kids more on an even playing field, and that’s what we need down here: balance.”