Taking action on a tuition tax credit bill passed last spring by the Democrat-controlled Illinois House, the Republican-controlled Senate voted 38-14 on November 14 to approve House Bill 999, which provides a $500 tax credit for K-12 education expenses. GOP Governor Jim Edgar has until February 14 to sign the bill into law.
“I am pleased that the Senate has finally acted on this initiative, and I await the Governor’s action,” said the bill’s chief sponsor, Democratic State Representative Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy was present on the Senate floor during the debate, pacing up and down trying to pick up votes, while Republican sponsor Senator Dan Cronin answered questions on the measure. “House Bill 999 will provide Illinois families with an opportunity to receive up to a $500 tax credit for education expenses for children in elementary and secondary schools,” McCarthy added.
The bill’s passage was a triumph of grassroots political action. After prompt House approval, the bill had languished in the Senate Rules Committee until the legislature’s fall veto session. But after supporters of the bill sent nearly 20,000 letters to Senate President James “Pate” Philip, the bill came before a November 13 hearing of the Senate Education Committee. In a room packed with more than 100 opponents, the Committee nevertheless voted 6-4 in favor of the bill, with several members noting they also had received thousands of phone calls and letters from opponents.
Cronin, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, argued that parents who send their children to private and parochial schools shouldn’t be penalized for doing so and deserve some type of tax credit. Pointing out that the cost of the measure would be no more than $50 million, he noted that since 1996 the legislature had approved over $1.2 billion of tax credits for such items as farm chemical purchases, manufacturing machinery, and business expenses.
“Why is a credit for education expenses any less worthy than those tax credits?” he asked, urging his colleagues not to pit the public schools against the private schools. “We need both systems of education,” he added. “We need the nonpublic schools very, very much to educate the 310,000 Illinois children they enroll.”
Families spending between $250 and $2,250 on “qualified education expenses” for their K-12 children would be eligible to claim a tax credit of 25 percent of those expenses. Qualified expenses are those incurred for tuition, book fees, and lab fees at public, private, or parochial schools. (See “Ill. Tax Credit Bill Passes House, Moves to Senate,” School Reform News, June 1997.)
The measure provides that low-income families who make qualified education expenses, but whose tax liability is less than $500, will have the difference refunded to them.
Despite the bill’s success in the General Assembly, the Governor’s signature is far from certain.
Opponents of credits, such as the Chicago Sun-Times, argue they “undermine the public school system.” Illinois PTA chairman Sharon Voliva warned “A single drop of that poison will taint the entire school funding well.”
George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].