Chicago public schools began classes this month after securing much-needed money from the state. But the funding bill came with a provision that critics say could imperil public education in the state and serve as a frightening precedent for the rest of the country.
This “poison pill,” as teachers unions call it, allows individuals and corporations to donate to private schools in lieu of paying taxes. Many opponents liken this to school voucher programs, which can be devastating to public schools.
The new program differs from a traditional voucher program. Rather than directly using public money for private-school tuition, it doles out tax credits for donations to private-school scholarship funds.
But opponents of the program allege that its effect could be similar to that of vouchers, by causing students to leave public schools while reducing these schools’ per-pupil funding base. As more students are incentivized to attend private schools through the newly created scholarships, public schools could see their attendance numbers plummet. As a result, these public schools — which are funded based on enrollment — face the prospect of even deeper cuts at a time when they are already undergoing a destabilizing budget crisis.
In early August, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a previous version of the school funding bill, which he called a “bailout” for Chicago schools. But after the voucher-like provision was inserted, the billionaire and longtime school privatization proponent signed his name to the bill, ending a months-long standoff.
The law creates a five-year pilot program capped at $75 million per year. At this level, experts say, the program is unlikely to divert significant numbers of students from public schools. Projections show that it would likely create fewer than 10,000 full scholarships statewide, depending on how the details of the program are crafted, and these could likely be used by students already enrolled in private schools.
But critics worry the program could pave the way for a much larger voucher-like program down the line, which could lead to large-scale layoffs of public school teacher union members and deal a blow to the future of public education in the state.
Critics charge that the program will also allow rich individuals and big businesses to avoid paying taxes. For every $1,000 donated to private schools, participants will receive a $750 tax credit. And the bill appears to allow donations to be directed to specific schools, allowing wealthy individuals and corporations to receive tax breaks for simply continuing their current giving practices.
“Instead of giving to the government and letting the people decide how to use the money, they want to pick and choose their special causes,” says state Rep. Will Guzzardi (D‑Chicago), who opposes the tax credit. “It’s possible there’s already $75 million in giving in this area, so this might not incentivize an extra dime.”
Donations to Catholic schools are eligible for tax rebates under the bill, and Cardinal Blase Cupich of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which runs nearly 200 schools, strongly advocated for the provision. Critics believe the provision skirts legal questions about separation of church and state.
“We believe public money should not go to private or parochial school interests,” says Daniel Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “This is kind of an end run around this.”
A sign of things to come?
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey fears the five-year pilot program will open the door to a much wider assault on public schools.
“There’s no reason to believe people won’t be lining up the moment this opens — a stampede to get out of paying taxes,” Sharkey says. “Instead of giving money to the government that does things like regulate business, provide healthcare and a whole bunch of not particularly sexy things, if you’re a wealthy corporation you can give that money to scholarships, get all the credit and love for helping students, and write that right off the top of your tax bill, up to a million dollars.
“Then the popularity becomes a political tool in the hands of people who want to increase the program.”
After the tax credit program was introduced, CPS aggressively pressured principals to lobby their legislators in favor of the program, as revealed by the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. The 118-year-old association is headed by Troy LaRaviere, a principal ousted from his post after publicly criticizing Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS. (Full disclosure: LaRaviere emceed In These Times’ 41st-anniversary gala this month.)
Principals sent LaRaviere emails and voicemails they had received from school officials ordering them to lobby on behalf of the tax credit, as well as a Google Doc they were told to fill out tracking their activity. After LaRaviere publicized these actions, the Google Doc was immediately made inaccessible, he says. CPS did not respond to a request to comment on these claims.
In explaining why funneling students into private schools could hurt academic outcomes, LaRaviere pointed to recent studies showing that across Illinois, students in public schools perform better than their peers of similar race and economic background in private schools. This trend is especially concerning, LaRaviere explains, if an expanded tax credit program were to send struggling low-income and minority students into private schools ill-equipped to educate them.
“Private schools don’t even want the kind of students that proponents of this kind of legislation often talk about,” LaRaviere says. “The whole nature of private education is that it’s exclusionary. They wouldn’t even know what to do with half the kids from low-income households who in theory are supposed to get these so-called tax credit scholarships.”
LaRaviere says the studies show what many educators in the public system have long known: “There is no school system more effective [than public schools] at getting students to learn and grow when you take into account their starting point. So the most intelligent thing to do is to continue to invest in the system that has proven itself.”
The Rahm-DeVos connection
While Rahm Emanuel has been at loggerheads with Gov. Rauner of late over the school funding issue, LaRaviere sees the tax credit as part of the mayor’s long-standing privatization agenda.
“As a Democrat, he was in an untenable position, but he saw an opportunity where he could get away with it,” LaRaviere says of Emanuel’s support for the tax-credit deal.
While Rauner and his allies have long pushed for privatization of public education and government support for charter schools, union leaders and other experts note that the ground is now fertile for enacting this agenda, with the U.S. Department of Education headed by Betsy DeVos, an ardent backer of charter schools, faith-based schools and corporate education reform.
LaRaviere notes the parallels, adding, “This is about more than DeVos — this is about the forces behind DeVos and behind Emanuel, which are one and the same.”