The Illinois Tuition Tax Credit: Who Gets the Credit? Who Pays the Consequences?

Program’s Lack of Accountability

Both this report and last year’s Misplaying the Angles examine the financial impact of the Illinois tuition tax credit law, but they do not address the law’s academic impact. This can be explained by a very simple reason. The academic quality of the private or parochial schools that students attend with tax-credit assistance cannot be determined. Although state taxpayers are effectively subsidizing these private schools, such schools are not academically accountable to taxpayers. Consider the contrast between how public and private schools are held—or not held—accountable.

Public schools are required to administer the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT), and the test scores of public schools are publicly reported. (ISAT measures whether students in grades 3-5 and 7-8 are meeting the goals established by the state’s learning standards. 27) In fact, even before Congress had mandated increased student testing through the reauthorized Leave No Child Behind Act, the state Board of Education had gone to the extraordinary step of recommending that Illinois’ public school students be tested each year from the 3rd through 11th grades. 28 Test results provide parents, the public and policymakers with critical information that can help shape each school’s improvement plans and instructional strategies. 29

Private schools—even those which benefit from tax-credit dollars—are not required to play by these rules. No state law requires private schools to administer the ISAT or any other specific standardized test. Private schools are free to decide what kind of test they wish to administer, and this test need not reflect or be based on the state’s learning standards. More significantly, private schools are not required to publicly report their school-wide results on any tests they administer, nor are they mandated to report the certification status of their teachers. 30

In addition to not having to comply with state standards on academic accountability, private schools need not abide by rules and state laws that govern financial and other forms of accountability. Unlike Illinois’ public schools, private schools are not required to abide by the state’s open meetings law and Freedom of Information Act, 31 nor are private schools obligated to publicly disclose budgets and financial audits. In fact, private schools aren’t even required to be registered, licensed or accredited by state officials. 32

Concerns about accountability and the financial impact of tuition tax credits may help explain why tax credits have fared poorly with voters. In fact, supporters of tuition tax credits have never succeeded at the ballot box. Since 1981, three states and the District of Columbia have placed tuition tax credits on the election ballot, and voters have rejected each of these ballot initiatives by decisive margins. 33

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