Another powerful player has quietly joined the tangled web of talks about allocating public education money to schools before the fast-approaching first day of class:
Cardinal Blase Cupich.
The influential head of Chicago’s Catholic Archdiocese met with Gov. Bruce Rauner about trying to get a tax benefit for those who contribute to scholarships for parochial and private schools.
The cardinal’s overture drew strong support from the Republican governor, cautious looks from Democratic leaders — and outright opposition from the Chicago Teachers Union.
The meeting was part of the ongoing legislative negotiations over how Illinois will dole out taxpayer money to public schools.
As Democrats continue to push for an override of Rauner’s school funding veto, state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, on Thursday characterized the archdiocesan scholarship program as something the governor is asking of Democrats “in order to continue discussions on Senate Bill 1 and a final compromise.”
The program seeks to create scholarships for low- and middle-income students so they can afford Catholic or other private schools, according to the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the Archdiocese of Chicago’s public policy arm. Corporate and individual donations would be funneled through scholarship-granting organizations.
As initially proposed, donors would get a dollar-for-dollar state income tax credit for their contributions. A family of four earning up to $110,000 could qualify for a scholarship for a limitless tuition cost.
Republicans want a $100 million scholarship program paired with a 100 percent tax credit. But there’s now talk of reducing it to 75 cents per dollar, and many want it much lower. Democrats also want a pilot program with a sunset, not a permanent one.
“Democratic negotiators are not warm to giving the Cardinal the scholarship program to the level” he is pushing, a source said.
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan supports the idea that the program could fund scholarships, but not as initially proposed, said his spokesman Steve Brown.
“There’s always been serious concerns about public support for private schools,” Brown said.
When asked specifically about the scholarship and tax credit program, Rauner spokeswoman Laurel Patrick confirmed the governor has met with “many education advocates, including Cardinal Cupich.”
When Cupich calls, legislators listen. And a trip to Rome last year endeared him to many leaders and lawmakers.
Coincidentally, all four legislative leaders identify as Catholic and graduated from Catholic high schools.
Rauner has described his own religious background as diverse. His father was Catholic and his mother Swedish Lutheran, so he was raised Episcopalian as a compromise. First lady Diana Rauner is Jewish. The governor has said some of their children are Jewish and some are Christian.
During budget talks in May, the cardinal advocated for three issues — personally speaking with two leaders, several sources told the Chicago Sun-Times. They included a tax credit for scholarships to private schools, a raise on the tax credit families currently paying tuition claim, and another tax credit for teachers who buy supplies. Two passed in the budget finally settled in July.
“We do have some hope, however, that Tax Credit Scholarships could be included in an education funding compromise,” Jim Rigg, Chicago’s Catholic schools superintendent wrote in a July 24 email blast to families.
The Catholic Conference also conducted several outreach efforts, including bulletin inserts and emails asking Catholics to call local officials to support the tax credit, and meetings with lawmakers statewide.
The Archdiocese of Chicago has long advocated tax credits or vouchers for private school tuition to replenish enrollment.
But it’s not just Catholics. According to the Illinois Kids Campaign website the Archdiocese referred parents to, supporters include Jewish schools and organizations, Christian schools and many large Chicago charter school chains (The Illinois Network of Charter Schools did not return messages). Also listed are multiple locals of the Teamsters and Pipe Fitters unions and the national pro-voucher group the American Federation for Children.
“It’s a very large coalition,” said Rabbi Shlomo Soroka of the Chicago-based Agudath Israel of Illinois. “It’s not religious groups just looking to get their own educational system subsidized. The idea over here is to ensure that parents have choice to send their children to the most appropriate place, that they feel their children will get the most appropriate and highest quality education.”
The governor was asked about the program on Tuesday, shortly after he issued an amendatory veto of the funding bill. “I have been an advocate, strong advocate for school choice my whole life,” Rauner said. “I believe that parents who do not have financial resources still deserve to be able to choose a school that fits their child the best.”
A “strong supporter” of the initiative, Rauner said “I am excited and hopeful that as part of a compromise if one is worked out that that would include tuition tax credits.”
Classes resume within weeks, and public school districts still won’t see the state money they need to operate until a new funding formula takes hold.
The Chicago Teachers Union was mortified that the long-awaited public education funding bill could benefit private schools.
“It’s unfathomable that anyone would be thinking about taking any amount of money from the state at the schools’ greatest time of need,” said Stacy Davis Gates, CTU’s legislative director. “It just isn’t right to do it.”