Private Schools: Saving Illinois Taxpayers $2 Billion a Year

Published January 6, 1997

Thank the Lord for the Illinois parents who send their children to parochial or private schools. By keeping their students out of tax-supported government schools, those parents save Illinois taxpayers over $2 billion a year.

According to the State Board of Education, Illinois taxpayers spent $12.4 billion on elementary and secondary education in Illinois in 1995-96, up 5.6 percent from the previous school year. That figure represents $6,380 for each of the 1.9 million students attending government schools in Illinois.

Some 324,315 Illinois students are currently enrolled in private and parochial schools. If their parents decided next fall to enroll them in the public school system, school districts across the state would face an average enrollment increase of 16.7 percent. If public school administrators demanded “adequate” funding of education, and if parents demanded action from elected officials, harried legislators eventually would present taxpayers with a tax increase of $2.1 billion a year–$6,380 for each of the additional 324,315 students.

Given the magnitude of the subsidy that public schools receive from private school parents, why don’t school reformers include private schools in their proposed funding schemes? Perhaps they would pay more attention to private schools if private school parents decided to “strike” next fall and enroll their children in the local public schools.

That scenario will not play out next fall, but it becomes increasingly likely. Before long, parents who currently exercise their freedom of choice will no longer be able to afford to. They’ll buckle under the heavy burden of paying not only tuition, but also increased taxes aimed at funding the public schools their children do not attend.

It would not cost much to remove at least part of that tax penalty. Last year, for example, the GOP-controlled General Assembly increased funding for education in Illinois by over $400 million. That money could have been used to fund $1,500 scholarships for any child in Illinois attending a private or parochial school. If the 324,315 students currently attending non-government schools in Illinois had been the only ones to accept the scholarships, the cost to taxpayers would have been less than $500 million–a reasonable response to the $2.1 billion that these children currently save Illinois taxpayers.

If the $1,500 scholarship offer caused some parents to transfer their public school students to private schools, Illinois taxpayers could have saved even more money. For every public school student who accepted the $1,500 scholarship, taxpayers would have saved $6,380. If just over 5 percent of public school students transferred out, the net cost of the scholarship program to taxpayers would be zero. If the scholarship program encouraged enrollment at private and parochial schools to double, Illinois taxpayers would see a $1 billion reduction in their taxes for education.

A scholarship program would give Illinois parents more control over the educations of their children. It would help level the playing field on which private schools and taxpayer-funded public schools compete. It would reduce the financial penalty imposed on parents who choose anything other than their local public school district for the instruction of their offspring. And, it would be legal.

Opponents contend that scholarship programs, if they include parochial schools, violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. But the courts have been much more supportive. So long as the scholarships go to parents, and not directly to schools, the courts have found such programs constitutional. Laurence H. Tribe, a law professor at Harvard University, has said that “any objection that anyone would have to a voucher program would have to be policy-based and could not rest on legal doctrine. One would have to be awfully clumsy to write voucher legislation that couldn’t pass constitutional scrutiny.”

It is clearly time to end the unfair, $2.1 billion subsidy that private school parents provide to Illinois taxpayers. A statewide scholarship of $1,500 not only would be a step in the right direction, but it could result in an education tax cut of more than $1 billion. Surely all Illinois taxpayers would be thankful for that!

George A. Clowes is a Mount Prospect Village Trustee and editor of School Reform News, a monthly publication of The Heartland Institute.