Illinois tax credit program for private schools set to end, upsetting Jewish advocates


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – For the last five years, thousands of Jewish children in Illinois and their families have taken advantage of a state program that lets them defray the cost of private Jewish schools.

Now, those families could see their payments rise after state lawmakers allowed the tuition tax credit program to expire, with little clarity about whether it could resume in the future.

The demise of Illinois’ “Invest in Kids” program points to deep and lasting political divides over the propriety of redirecting public funding for education toward private and religious institutions. The lapse of the program is drawing criticism from Jewish leaders in the state, including some who initially did not go to bat for it.

“There are a wide variety of opinions on the use of these kinds of programs and public funding for private schools, which was the reason we stayed out,” said Dan Goldwin, executive director of public affairs at the Jewish United Fund, Chicago’s Jewish federation. But he said now that he’s seen the benefits, he’s feeling “profound disappointment on behalf of a whole bunch of families and students” about the program’s end.

Invest in Kids, launched in 2018, has given private donors hefty tax breaks if they contribute to a private school scholarship fund for children from low-income families. The program’s proponents said it would give families education options they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford; its critics argued that it would inappropriately deplete the state’s tax revenue. 

The program lapsed on Nov. 10 after state lawmakers ended their legislative activity for the year without calling it to a vote, allowing it to expire at the end of December. 

The step away from public funding for religious schools in Illinois, which is led by Democrats, comes as other states are moving in the opposite direction. Earlier this year, Orthodox Jewish groups celebrated a new Florida state law that allowed private and religious school students in the state to access up to about $8,000 per year in state education funds. 

The Illinois program, too, was beloved by Orthodox Jews, who almost universally send their children to Jewish schools and frequently bear a significant tuition burden, especially if they have larger families. But Jewish advocates for the program say non-Orthodox day schools benefitted, too.

Based on self-reported data from some of the scholarship-granting agencies, at least 1,400 Jewish day school students of all backgrounds and denominations used the program in the 2022-23 school year. Under the program, since 2018, between $40 to 60 million has flowed to Jewish day schools from scholarship funds.

The state’s chapter of Agudath Israel, an Orthodox advocacy group that has been active in pushing for tuition tax credits in multiple states, joined Catholic groups in advocating for the program at the statehouse in Springfield. Now, the group says it is “deeply disappointed” in the legislature for failing to advance the bill.

“The program has been transformative for tens of thousands but I don’t know if everyone initially appreciated how impactful it would be for the Jewish community,” Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs for Agudath Israel of Illinois, told (JEWISH REVIEW). “It has been a lifeline for thousands of Jewish families.”

In general, research shows that tax-credit programs typically benefit families that are already using private schools, rather than opening doors that would otherwise be closed to low-income students.

JUF did not take a position on the program when it was first enacted six years ago, although it did alert Jewish families to the program’s existence. Godwin said the federation did not typically sound off on “tax-related issues,” and that he was worried that the tax revenue lost as a result of the program could hurt state funding for other social services. But the organization began backing Invest in Kids in 2021 as more Jewish students and day schools benefited from it. 

When the legislature reconvenes in January, Goldwin hopes there might be an opportunity to renew calls for a program extension, or, failing that, a “soft landing” that would prevent disruption to students benefitting from the program midway through the academic year. 

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish, has indicated his willingness to sign such a compromise. But a spokesperson for the state’s House speaker, Emanuel Chris Welch, told reporters that he never called a vote for the bill because there was simply not enough support from either side of the aisle.

Public school advocates celebrated the program’s end, with the head of the state’s teachers union saying, “Illinois lawmakers chose to put our public schools first.”

Some of the program’s proponents told (JEWISH REVIEW) that it was especially important to maintain in light of increased antisemitism and anti-Israel activity in public education spaces since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. A handful of teachers unions across the country, including in Oakland and Minneapolis, have put out statements about the conflict that Jewish groups have considered antisemitic. Chicago’s teachers union has not. 

Still, some local Jews said the current moment has shown how important it is for Jewish students to attend Jewish schools.

“Even secular Jewish kids have a better shot at identifying as proudly Jewish and pro-Israel if they attend a Jewish day school,” said Rabbi Menachem Levine, head of the Orthodox Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov-Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi in Chicago, the largest Jewish day school in the Midwest. “But that’s not an option for Jews who aren’t well-off.” 

The Jewish leaders said they were galled that none of the Jewish lawmakers in the Springfield statehouse supported the bill. “We are especially disappointed in those state lawmakers that represent portions of our Jewish community who refused to support our efforts, or were even obstructive,” Agudath Israel said in a statement bemoaning the end of the program. 

The Illinois Legislative Jewish Caucus has 15 members across both chambers of the state assembly. An informal leader for the group, Rep. Bob Morgan, who represents the northern suburbs of Chicago, declined to comment to (JEWISH REVIEW).

While Goldwin wants to see the program resurrected, he said he wouldn’t cite antisemitism in public schools as a factor. 

“The impact of antisemitism in schools and elsewhere is profound regardless of the scholarship situation,” he said. “I’m not frankly aware of a mass exodus out of the public schools because of antisemitism.”