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EDITORIAL: Secret talks in Springfield no way to decide school funding

Illinois overhauled its school funding formula last year, but the state still is falling short of adequately funding schools. | Seth Perlman/AP file photo

Years of research, public hearings and openly debated compromise have produced a better way to fund Illinois schools that could — and should — become law in the next week.

But how much unbiased research has been done — and how many public meetings have been held — on a last-minute push to subsidize private schooling with taxpayer money through scholarship tax credits?

You guessed it — zero.

All parents deserve good choices about where to send their kids to school. We’re open to every legitimate idea for making that happen. No parent should have no other option except to send their child to a second-rate or third-rate public school.

But a plan being hammered out in Springfield behind closed doors by Republicans and the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, to give tax credits to people who make donations for scholarships at private schools, is being irresponsibly rushed. It is an appealing concept, at first blush, but fraught with dangers.

Such a fundamental change in how Illinois pays for education should be debated deliberately, thoughtfully and entirely on its own merits. It should not be thrown in as a sop to flip enough votes to pass a larger education funding bill, which is what’s going down in Springfield. Gov. Bruce Rauner and Republicans want scholarship tax credits in exchange for overhauling the school funding formula.

We urge the Legislature and governor to support the original school funding bill, Senate Bill 1, which in itself would amount to a dramatic step forward in fairness in how Illinois pays for public schools. It would, finally, after decades of resistance, channel more state money to school districts that need it most. Before the governor took a hatchet to Senate Bill 1 with an amendatory veto, the new formula was based on principles recommended by a bipartisan school funding reform commission. Keep it that way.

EDITORIAL

Scholarship tax credits are worthy of debate. So let’s have a real discussion. Don’t call a last-minute audible behind closed doors and steamroll this on taxpayers. That’s not how democracy works best.

How can taxpayers afford to bankroll scholarship tax credits when the state is years behind on paying bills? Where would the money come from? It had better not come from public schools that already have been underfunded by the state for decades.

How would the state make sure private schools are accessible to students with special needs? Certainly they deserve every chance at a quality education.

As of January, 17 states offered scholarship tax credits. The states allow individuals and corporations to redirect all or some of the taxes they owe to nonprofit scholarship organizations that dole out scholarships to kindergartners through 12th graders attending private schools, or sometimes public schools outside a student’s assigned school district. The students are from low- and sometimes middle-income families.

The states have different standards to issue tax credits. Taxpayers in Indiana, for instance, get a credit worth 50 percent of their donation, while Iowa taxpayers receive credits worth 65 percent of an individual’s donation. States also have different eligibility requirements for students to receive scholarships.

Illinois residents don’t really know what requirements here would look like. A 75 cent credit for every dollar is said to be under consideration. Republicans wanted a $100 million scholarship program and 100 percent tax credit. One proposal would have allowed a family of four earning up to $110,000 to qualify for a scholarship with no cap on tuition cost, the Sun-Times’ Tina Sfondeles reported early this month.

Specifics are hard to come by because this is a last-minute scheme as opposed to a proper discussion. The ramifications for public school funding in the future have not been thoughtfully considered. A dramatic subsidy such as this for private schools should be considered as part of a larger discussion about taxation in Illinois.

Meeting in secret and shoving through major legislation such as this in the 11th hour is no way to govern.

How about letting parents and taxpayers have a say?

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