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Extra Credit?

No way, says a tenacious group opposed to tax breaks for nonpublic schools.

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By Ben Joravsky

When the bill to subsidize Illinois' private schools with public dollars first surfaced, it was parents and teachers against Cardinal Francis George, house speaker Mike Madigan, and James "Pate" Philip's mighty Du Page County Republican machine.

But the parents and teachers, backed by a lame-duck governor, won round one.

So it goes in the strange war over tax credits for private tuition. The proponents have the power, yet the opponents prevail (at least for now). It's one of those odd little legislative lessons that even the experts don't completely understand.

"I'm not sure how we do it, but we're hanging in there," says Arlene Zielke, legislative coordinator for the Chicago Region PTA. "Maybe it's because we're so persistent. We're not going down without a fight."

In many ways Zielke is the stereotypical PTA leader. She's a "stay at home mom" who joined the PTA years ago when her three children (now grown) enrolled at Mount Greenwood Elementary School. "I was just another mom looking out for her kids," says Zielke. "At first I was primarily interested in local issues, and then I got drawn into wider concerns."

She served on the national PTA board, working closely with the Washington office and testifying occasionally before Congress. Over the years she's watched the PTA's power diminish in Chicago, particularly since the school reform law of 1987 created local school councils. The LSCs, locally elected boards of parents and teachers and residents, were given control over principal hirings and antipoverty funds.

"In the last few years PTAs have become fund-raising tools at many schools, and I'm not comfortable with that," says Zielke. "I tend to discourage fund-raising. I think we should march on Springfield to get the funds we deserve. But they like to keep the PTA busy raising funds so we don't raise substantive educational questions.

"You go to so many PTA meetings and you see parents and teachers forced to spend hours trying to figure out how to raise money for workbooks or computers. They aren't discussing the important health and safety and educational issues affecting their schools. I think the PTAs should be politically active. I think PTA members should be on the phone with their legislators, actively lobbying for their concerns."

One issue of paramount concern to the PTA is the tax credit bill first introduced in 1997 by representative Kevin McCarthy, a Democrat out of Orland Park. McCarthy's bill would award a maximum tax credit of $500 to families who spend at least $2,250 in school fees or tuition.

According to McCarthy, tax credits are needed as a matter of fairness to children from poor families who now have no alternative to substandard neighborhood public schools. With a credit, parents might be able to afford a private or parochial school.

The argument's popular among politicians looking for votes from private-school parents who resent having to pay both taxes for public schools and expensive tuition. Indeed, newly elected governor George Ryan has been making a pitch to these parents for years.

"Fairness and opportunity also mean extending a hand to all our kids, including those in private and parochial schools," Ryan said last month in his state of the state address. "These parents pay taxes just like the rest of us to support our public schools, yet they shoulder the added cost of private schools as well. Whether a parent chooses to homeschool a child or send their child to a charter school or to a parochial school, they are entitled to our help and we should provide it."

McCarthy's bill also is supported by the Chicago archdiocese, whose leaders say they need some sort of state bailout to keep schools open. Last week the archdiocese announced that five inner-city schools, including Our Lady of Angels, would close this summer.

"We're forced to make the terrible decision to close schools when we just don't have the enrollment, or the tuition is becoming too high for the community to bear," Elaine Schuster, superintendent of Catholic schools, told reporters last week.

According to Schuster, 55 Catholic schools have been closed since 1990, leaving 265 in a system that once had more than 400. "I think [the closings] show the gravity of the problem," McCarthy told the Tribune. "We've already lost too many schools, and the parents of Illinois deserve to have a choice." (McCarthy did not return my phone calls.)

From the start, opposition to McCarthy's bill was largely limited to the PTA, the ACLU, and teachers' unions, which argued it was unconstitutional to subsidize religious schools with public money. It's sad, they said, to see Catholic schools close for lack of funds. But shouldn't funding be the obligation of wealthier parishioners in exclusive suburbs who can afford to help their less fortunate brethren?

Besides, a $500 tax credit hardly would enable a poor family to afford parochial school tuition, which costs at least $2,000. It would simply be another tax break for rich people who send their children to exclusive schools.

"In addition, we have tremendous financial concerns," says Zielke. "No one knows exactly how much this would cost the state, but it could be as high as $150 million. That's money the public schools desperately need. I see this as a slippery slope. If they pass this they'll come back next year to raise the credit. Soon it will be $1,000, then $2,000, then who knows how much."

Despite these arguments, McCarthy's bill won the support of Madigan and Philip, both of whom were looking to woo Catholic voters in November's elections. Even Mayor Daley and Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas were unwilling to take a strong stand in opposition.

"Vallas's primary legislative concern was getting the legislators to give him more control over the LSCs in matters like principal retention," says Zielke. "We have not been able to count on him, even though it means millions of dollars for public schools."

The bill was adopted by the house and senate last fall. But in one of his last acts of office, former governor Jim Edgar vetoed it on the grounds that it was too expensive and probably unconstitutional.

McCarthy promptly reintroduced the bill, confident that with Ryan's support he would prevail. But Ryan's election had quite the opposite result. The PTA still opposed the bill, as did the ACLU and the teachers' unions. But now they were joined by other groups, most notably Concerned Christian Americans, an association of homeschoolers.

"It's a lot different now that we don't have a governor vowing to veto the bill," said Gail Purkey, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which has lobbied against the bill. "Now suddenly everyone knows that this is for real. This isn't grandstanding. How the house votes will really matter."

The homeschoolers opposed the bill because it may lead to regulation. "If you're going to take state funds, you have to open yourself to some regulation," said Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union. "This is a big issue. Public moneys come with responsibilities and accountability and requirements. And homeschoolers are leery of accepting state money because it comes with all those regulations. With the Concerned Christian Americans we suddenly have allies among conservative Republicans who would never give us the time of day. It's wild."

Most observers figured the tax credit would pass the senate, where Republican senators pretty much do what Philip tells them. But the house was trickier. Madigan still supported the bill, but he doesn't exercise as much control over Democrats, a diverse lot that includes blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives. "All the legislators are playing it close to the vest--they won't say how they'll vote," said Purkey. "But you have to figure they don't have the votes. Otherwise Madigan would have called it for a vote."

Last week the house finally did adopt the bill, but in an amended version that Ryan and Philip say they won't support. That bill probably will die in the senate, which then will send the house another version of McCarthy's original proposal.

"We could be right back where we started--the battleground will be in the house," says Zielke. "I can't predict how this will go. They might try to put in langauge that satisfies the homeschoolers so they drop out of our coalition. I know one thing--we'll be against it. You can count on that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Arlene Zielke photo by Dan Machnik.

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