In what is being called a significant turn, Illinois lawmakers last week approved a plan that would provide state tax breaks to parents who pay tuition to send their children to private, religious, or out-of-district public schools.
By a vote of 62-52 on May 12, members of the Illinois House passed a bill that would provide an annual maximum tax credit of $500, or 25 percent of the cost of tuition and other educational expenses. The Senate already approved the legislation in March, and Gov. George Ryan, a Republican, has indicated that he will sign the bill.
Observers say the state income-tax credits are relatively limited in monetary value, but represent a notable win for school choice advocates nationally.
“Any time you can get a major state to endorse the notion that people should have more control over their educational choices, it’s important,” said Matthew Berry, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based legal organization that defends such school choice measures as private school vouchers and tax credits.
Critics of the Illinois measure contend that the tax credits, which will carry an estimated price tag of $150 million a year, will mainly help middle- and upper-class families and divert money from the very children the plan is supposed to help: public school students whose parents can’t afford private school tuition. The critics also say the tax credits breach state constitutional barriers against government aid to religion.
With its direct link to educational expenses, the Illinois plan is broader in scope than an existing $500 tax credit in Arizona.
The Arizona tax credits apply only to contributions to scholarship programs that pay for private school tuition, and not for tuition expenses themselves, Mr. Berry added. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of its state’s plan in January. (“Tax Credits Pass Muster in Arizona,” Feb. 3, 1999.)
In Illinois, the state affiliate of the National Education Association plans to file a lawsuit against the measure and expects to be joined by others, said Robert B. Haisman, the president of the Illinois Education Association.
"[Voucher supporters] now have their foot in the door,” Mr. Haisman said. “If this isn’t declared unconstitutional, we’re going to be back in the legislature every year increasing [the tax credits] by percentages until it really starts to divert money away from public schools.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 1999 edition of Education Week as Ill. Lawmakers OK Tax Credit for Tuition, Private School Costs