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Scholarship tax credit program among issues still on the table with 3 legislative days remaining

A kid raises her hand in a classroom
Capitol News Illinois photo by Hannah Meisel
Although statewide average proficiency rates remained below pre-pandemic levels, the results showed improvement over the previous year across all demographic categories.

Lawmakers will return to Springfield next week for the second half of their fall veto session, giving advocates of a tax credit program for private school scholarships one last chance to push for its extension before it’s set to expire at the end of the year.

The Invest in Kids program is scheduled to reach the end of its five-year life on Dec. 31. The program, which launched in 2018, costs the state $75 million annually in tax breaks for donors to private school scholarship funds. Those funds awarded nearly 10,000 scholarships last year.

Many Democrats in the General Assembly would like to see the program sunset as scheduled, joining Illinois’ largest teachers’ unions in calling it a backdoor voucher program. But some in the majority party – especially those with large private school constituencies – have joined Republicans in pushing for its renewal.

Gov. JB Pritzker’s position on the program has evolved since he first ran for governor in 2018, when part of his campaign platform included ending the scholarship program. Since then, he’s softened his stance at various points, including last month when he said he’d be willing to sign an extension of the program “in whatever form.”

That remark provoked a strong rebuke from the state’s two largest teachers’ unions, which accused Pritzker of siding with “anti-public education Republican governors.”

At an unrelated event Wednesday, the governor’s tone toward the program was ambivalent when asked about it, saying it’s up to the General Assembly, and that “support for public education is really where my focus is.”

“I’ve always said, you know, that we're not trying to prevent people from going to private school, but I also believe in public education and want to make sure that we're funding public education, to the extent that that is possible,” Pritzker said.

He pointed out that the state has increased K-12 education by more than $2 billion in the years since it passed the Invest in Kids Act as part of a broader overhaul of the way Illinois funds public education.

The law’s built-in sunset means private school scholarship donors can’t claim tax credits for their donations after Dec. 31, although current recipients’ scholarships will still be valid through the spring semester. If the three-fifths majority needed to pass legislation with an immediate effective date during veto session proves too burdensome, there’s a chance lawmakers could take up the issue again in the spring, although the tax credit portion of the program would experience some disruption.

Democrats in the House have proposed a compromise, House Bill 4194, which would scale back the program to $50 million annually from $75 million, along with halving the largest possible donation tax to a scholarship fund from $1 million to $500,000 and changing the tax credit from the current 75 percent for all donations in order to incentivize smaller donors. Democrats also want the scholarships to be more targeted at students from low-income areas.

Senate Republican leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove, said in a news conference Wednesday his caucus is prepared to see the program scaled back for the sake of its survival, noting his GOP colleagues are comfortable with “everything that’s in that proposal.”

“While we would like to see the program made permanent, we realize it’s going to take compromise to get this program extended,” he said.

A group of ultra-conservative lawmakers, however, called the House Democrats’ proposal a “non-starter” in a recent news release, instead preferring to extend and expand the program.

Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, an advocate for the program, told Capitol News Illinois that he’s still hopeful for Invest in Kids’ extension.

“There have been many fruitful conversations and with the clock ticking, our message has been consistent: 9,500 kids are waiting for a decision,” Gilligan said.

Other items on the General Assembly’s plate could be punted into regular legislative session in January if they’re not addressed next week, though advocates are still hopeful their issues can be dealt with during lawmakers’ three-day stint in Springfield.

Elected Chicago School board

While most of the state has moved past a bitter partisan fight over redistricting, one part of Illinois is still grappling with how best to sort its population into voting blocs. In 2021, lawmakers approved a measure that will transition the Chicago Board of Education from an appointed body to one that is elected.

While proponents of the change have said the new policy is a democratizing move, critics have eschewed past drafts as not being representative of the population, echoing the fight over statewide legislative maps last year.

The legislative committee responsible for devising and approving maps, chaired by Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, released a new draft Wednesday that features five majority-white districts, seven majority-Black districts, 6 majority-Hispanic districts and two districts with no majority.

“This new map better reflects the diversity of Chicago’s unique neighborhoods, and we thank the many parents, educators and community members whose guidance helped shape these district boundaries,” Lightford said in a news release.

The final map will need to be approved by the legislature.

Chicago residents will vote for 10 members of the 21-person board in November 2024 to serve four-year terms. The other 10 members and the board president will be appointed until 2026, at which point voters would elect their replacements.

Nuclear moratorium

In August, Gov. JB Pritzker vetoed Senate Bill 76, a bill that would have lifted a state moratorium on nuclear power plant construction originally passed in 1987.

Despite the veto, the policy still has a few possible routes to becoming law, including via an override vote or as a new bill altogether.

“We feel like there’s a pathway during veto session,” Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, told Capitol News Illinois on Wednesday.

Curran said Wednesday he expects a bill on the subject to move next week.

“We know the votes are there in the Senate to pass the bill... And I think the advocacy on the issue continues to be in the House and the House will follow the Senate’s lead and pass the bill as well,” he said.

The governor explicitly pointed to a lack of safety regulations and loose definitions in SB 76 in his explanation of the veto to lawmakers, sentiments also expressed by environmental groups that lobbied against the policy over the summer.

Legislative staff unions

The ball is now in the Senate’s court on an issue that has animated debate among Springfield’s political staffers: unionization.

Last week, the House voted 74-35 to approve a bill, sponsored by Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, that was prompted by his staff’s efforts to unionize.

The would-be union’s organizers say they intend to bargain for better wages, hours and working conditions.

Read more: House approves framework allowing legislative staff to unionize

While voters approved a constitutional amendment last year granting Illinoisans a right to unionize, existing state law explicitly exempts legislative staff from unionizing. Labor experts testified in committee that the law change would be needed to allow staff to unionize due to the amendment’s vague wording.

While the bill gained momentum in the House, Senate leadership kept quiet on their plans. It remains unclear whether the bill will be called for a vote in that chamber when lawmakers return to Springfield next week.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of print and broadcast outlets statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Meisel works for Capitol News Illinois.
Andrew Adams works for Capitol News Illinois
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