Scholarship plan off and running

Scholarship plan off and running

Teachers' unions may hate the idea of helping students win taxpayer-subsidized tuition scholarships to private schools, but the public seems to like it.

Illinois' new "Invest in Kids" scholarship program got off to a fast start last week, attracting more than $36 million of the $100 million limit on its first day.

The program, part of the massive school funding reform package passed last year by the General Assembly, is an effort to help school-age children from lower-income families escape failing public schools by underwriting tuition costs at private ones.

It does so by offering a generous tax credit incentive to those who donate to the scholarship fund.

For example, an individual who donates $10,000 will receive a $7,500 credit on his state income taxes beginning with the 2018 tax year. The program is scheduled to run for five years unless it's extended by the General Assembly.

The way the program works is that donors will make contributions to scholarship-granting organizations from which applicants will seek scholarship aid. The state has been divided into five districts to ensure that private schools throughout the state are eligible to participate.

Central Illinois counties, including Champaign, DeWitt, Vermilion, McLean, Macon, Douglas, Edgar, Coles and Ford, are included in Region 4.

The overwhelming first-day response indicates that potential donors find it very attractive, to the point that it should not be long until the maximum $100 million donation figure is reached.

Families of students interested in winning tuition aid can begin the application process on Jan. 24. Those with an annual income below 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $73,000 for a family of four, are eligible for assistance.

Acceptance of the tax credit program put the finishing touches on last year's acrimonious debate over a rewriting of the state's school funding finance law. Indeed, it was the agreement between legislative Democrats and Republicans on including the measure that persuaded Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the legislation.

The measure drew vehement opposition from teachers' unions, which vigorously oppose any measure that encourages children to leave public schools, even failing ones, for private schools.

Union opposition to the school scholarship program prompted two local Democratic legislators — state Sen. Scott Bennett and state Rep. Carol Ammons — to vote in opposition to the bill they previously had championed.

The proposal did raise serious concerns. With Illinois a financial basket case, opponents questioned the wisdom of a tax credit proposal costing the state up to $75 million in revenue it cannot afford to lose.

It also has drawn the usual criticism as a sop to the rich, a charge not born out by the facts.

Obviously, it is a generous tax credit, and only upper-income individuals and families can afford to make charitable donations of any substantial size and type.

But donors still will have to give more money away than they will get back. So if the avaricious rich are looking to make a profit, they'll have to look elsewhere to satisfy their desire.

Revenue Department spokesman Terry Horstman said the program "is being done electronically" through its website. So donors must apply online through MyTaxIllinois, the department's online account management program.

It's a potentially cumbersome process that requires participants to "request approval to make a contribution and receive the income tax credit prior" to making their contributions. That means donors "must have a registered MyTax Illinois" account to receive approval for making a contribution.

Operated on a first-come, first-served basis, approval will be granted "as long as the regional and statewide credit thresholds have not been met," according to the Revenue Department.

This program is a step in a new direction for Illinois, one aimed primarily at helping young people get a better education and, as a consequence, win a brighter future. It's hard to argue with the goal of helping those most in need do better in life, and that's what this public/private partnership should help accomplish.

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