Illinois Tuitition Tax Credit Unfair to Poor Kids and Families

PFAWF Asks State Court To Overturn New Law

Illinois' newly enacted tuition tax credit law, designed to give parents whose children attend private schools up to $500 worth of tax relief, violates the state's constitution by providing a benefit that excludes the poor and favors the rich, according to People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF). Today PFAWF and other national and statewide groups, acting on behalf of Illinois parents, children and taxpayers, filed a lawsuit in state court in Sangamon County seeking to have the new law declared unconstitutional.

"This tax credit law is nothing but welfare for the haves," said People For the American Way Foundation Vice President and Legal Director Elliot Mincberg. "The only people who can benefit are those who are well-off enough to pay tuition in the first place."

Today's lawsuit also alleges that the law violates the Illinois constitution's provision for separation of church and state. Approximately 89 percent of all private school children in the state are enrolled in religious schools and all or almost all of these are pervasively sectarian. This means that the vast majority of the benefits of the law will be used to support instructional programs that inculcate religious beliefs and advance the religious purposes of these sectarian schools and the religious institutions that sponsor them.

The law, which is scheduled to take effect in the 2000 tax year, allows parents who pay tuition to send their children to private or religious schools to reduce their state tax bill by up to $500. The amount of the credit for which each family is eligible is 25 percent of tuition and fees expenditures over $250, up to a maximum credit of $500 or the family's total state tax bill, whichever is lower.

This formula spells a second disadvantage to Illinois' poorer families. Since the tax credit cannot exceed the families total state tax bill, families at the bottom of the economic scale would not be able to claim the full benefit – even if their tuition bills are just as high as those of wealthier families. The legal complaint filed today in the case notes that a family of four would need to have taxable income of at least $20,667 to claim the maximum $500 tax benefit. The complaint notes that approximately 40 percent of Illinois families have taxable income less than $20,666; that means only the wealthiest 60 percent of families could receive the full benefit of the law.

"This is a fundamentally unfair law that discriminates against poor families and misuses the tax laws in violation of our constitution," said the Rev. Dr. Floyd Davis, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who is pastor of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago and a member of PFAWF's African American Ministers Leadership Council.

Other plaintiffs include Barbara B. Toney of West Chicago and Deborah S. McCleary of Coal City, both of them parents of public school children, who are suing on their own and their children's behalf; Colman Buchbinder of Chicago, a parent of children in a private sectarian school, and Brenda Diehl of Champaign, who is the president of the Illinois PTA.

Acting on behalf of these plaintiffs is a coalition of organizations that includes, in addition to PFAWF, the National Education Association, the Illinois Education Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Illinois Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA), Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Association of School Administrators, the American Jewish Congress, Midwest Region, and the National Council of Jewish Women.

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