Chicago Cardinal Cupich helped win tax breaks in school funding law – Consumer News

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1 September 2017 | 10:30 am

Cardinal Blase Cupich turned out to be a timely lobbyist for a school funding bill containing controversial tax credits for Catholic and other private school donors.

But he says he twisted no arms to help win passage earlier this week. Nor did he travel to Springfield. Instead, he spoke with legislative leaders by telephone amid ongoing deliberations over changes to the state school aid formula and more money for Chicago Public Schools.

“I don’t like to go into the boiler room,” he tells Crain’s. “What leverage do I have?”

Enough, as it turned out.

After the Illinois House failed to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s partial veto of the funding plan known as Senate Bill 1, the cardinal advocated for the tax credits in follow-on legislation. Rauner signed the bill yesterday.

“We were at an impasse,” Cupich says. “The evidence of that was when the first bill failed. It was clear to everybody they weren’t going to get anything.”

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The tax-credit provision, effective next school year, provides $75 million annually for student aid over five years, after which it comes up for renewal.

Donors, who can designate schools but not students as beneficiaries, get a 75-cent credit against state income taxes for every dollar contributed, up to $1 million annually. To qualify, scholarship recipients must come from households with incomes less than three times the federal poverty level.

The Chicago Teachers Union terms the arrangement a “reverse Robin Hood scheme that siphons money from poor school districts and lets the wealthy avoid paying their fair share in taxes,” and calls it a prelude to full-blown vouchers, where students could use funds designated for public schools to pay for private school tuition.

Catholic school leaders have their own issues as they confront a long-term slide in attendance and finances.

A year ago the Chicago Archdiocese had 76,475 students at 217 schools; that compares with 365,000 students at 524 schools in 1965. Some 40 schools have been closed or consolidated since 2010.

In the last 30 years, the number of full-time teachers and administrators has dropped to 5,105 from 8,441, while the share of higher-paid lay teachers has soared. Only 87 teachers are in a religious order, compared with 1,529 three decades ago. The archdiocese says per-pupil spending is a median $5,745, a figure that is slightly higher for Chicago-only schools.

Cupich says the system, though shrunken, saves taxpayers $1 billion a year through lower public school enrollment. “In a way, $75 million is nothing compared to that contribution,” he says.

“And it’s not for everybody,” he continues, referring to the tuition subsidies. “It’s just for a target group of (low-income) people. And most of those people are not Catholic.” He says he was just as passionate about Senate Bill 1’s benefits for Chicago Public Schools and its underfunded pensions. “The majority of kids who come to our parishes go to public schools.”

Democrats running for governor have opposed the tax credits. Asked if he is worried about repeal if one is elected next year, Cupich says, “This kind of proposal is already working in 17 other states . . . and there hasn’t been any rollback.”

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