BROWN: Details still being sorted out in new state scholarship program

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Amid the political debate over whether Illinois should have gotten into the business of subsidizing private school education, I’m sure many Chicago-area families have just one question:

Where do I sign up?

With 78,000 children attending Chicago Catholic Archdiocesan schools alone this year, there’s bound to be a lot of interest in the state’s newly created tax credit scholarship program for private school students.


I think the first thing they all need to understand is that the money isn’t going to go very far.

The Legislature approved a 75 percent tax credit for donors who contribute up to $1 million to approved scholarship-granting organizations.

It also set a $75 million ceiling on the amount of tax credits to be awarded, which in essence would generate $100 million for scholarships if they reach the donation ceiling.

Supporters of the program estimate $100 million would provide need-based scholarships for 10,000 to 15,000 private school students statewide, depending on the dollar amount of the individual scholarship.

That dollar amount will vary depending on where the students choose to attend school and their family’s income level.

For instance, the program is open to both elementary and high school students, and elementary schools generally charge much less in tuition.

To qualify for a scholarship, a student’s family income can’t exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which is currently $73,800 for a family of four.

But students from the same size household whose family income is $45,000 or less will get first crack at the scholarship money.

Students in that lowest income category will each be eligible for the maximum scholarship, which will be calculated as the lesser of the statewide average operational expense per public school student — currently about $12,280 — or the actual tuition and fees of the school they choose to attend.

That effectively sets $12,280 as the maximum scholarship for most students, although that amount would be doubled in the case of a student who qualifies for special ed services.

As to where to sign up, that’s a little tricky, too.

To get the money, a student must apply to a designated scholarship-granting organization.

Proponents of the law say these could be new non-profit organizations created for this purpose or more likely existing groups such as the Big Shoulders Fund, which supports Chicago Catholic schools, Chicago Lutheran Educational Foundation and LINK Unlimited, which specializes in helping African-American students.

Big Shoulders Fund President Joshua Hale said he was thrilled by the passage of the school funding legislation and hopeful the tax credit program will help his organization, which already awards 5,000 to 6,000 scholarships annually.

But he cautioned he’s still trying to sort out the details to know for certain.

One wrinkle he might find interesting: no matter which scholarship organization approves a student for a grant, students are allowed to use the money to attend any qualified private school of their choosing.

In other words, a student theoretically could apply for a scholarship through the Big Shoulders Fund and use it to attend a private Jewish school.

“That could happen,” agreed Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, one of the key negotiators for this part of the school funding bill.

That could get sticky.

The tax credits are to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis but will be limited by the proportion of private school students in a given geographic area, the details of which remain to be determined.

This provision was intended to prevent the Chicago area from hogging all the tax credits — and consequently all the scholarships.

As it stands, Chicago and suburban Cook County are still expected to receive close to half the scholarships, based on the high percentage of private school students here.

At Chicago Catholic schools, will these scholarships be used to support families that are already enrolled or to attract new ones?

Probably both, Gilligan said.

As a liberal, I know I’m supposed to get worked up about this. I’m not.

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