IJ Scores First-Round Victory In Illinois School Choice Fight
By Matthew Berry
Last spring, Illinois Governor George Ryan and a bipartisan group of state legislators had a simple idea: let Illinois families keep more of their own money to spend on the education of their children as they see fit.
As a result, they enacted an educational expenses tax credit, which allows Illinois parents to reduce their state income tax payment by an amount equal to 25 percent of tuition, book fees, or lab fees incurred by K-12 students at public or private schools up to a maximum of $500 per family.
The teachers’ unions, however, were not pleased. Determined at all costs to maintain government control over education dollars, the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) filed a state court lawsuit in Benton, Illinois last summer seeking to have the tax credit declared unconstitutional because parents could claim the credit for expenses incurred at religious schools.
With the help of our local counsel Ron Coffel, the Institute for Justice immediately intervened in the case, representing 12 Illinois families seeking to take advantage of the tax credit. Our group of clients is the most diverse we have ever assembled in school choice litigation, reflecting the broad array of parents and children who will benefit from the tax credit.
Matthew Kuhn, for example, pays tuition to send his two children to public schools outside of his district of residence. Seven of Rabbi David Schnell’s children attend Jewish schools. Mary Ellen Lovell sends her two children to a Montessori school. Two of Shakir Moiduddin’s sons go to an Islamic school. Helen Mixon sends her son to a Lutheran school. And Patty Redpath struggles to afford tuition so that three of her adopted children may attend a Catholic school-as a single parent, she is unsure if she will be able to send her youngest adopted daughter to that school when she enters kindergarten without the help of the educational expenses tax credit.
While our clients have selected a wide range of schools for their children, they are united both by the desire to secure the best possible educational opportunities for their children and by the belief that parents, rather than government bureaucrats, are in the best position to select the education that best meets their children’s needs.
Last fall, IJ and the State of Illinois asked Franklin County Circuit Court Judge Loren P. Lewis to dismiss the IFT’s lawsuit on the grounds that the tax credit was constitutional. For a November 5 hearing held in Benton, Illinois on our motion to dismiss, we brought students from a local private school to the courtroom to show Judge Lewis the faces of those benefiting from the tax credit.
On December 6, school choice supporters secured a major victory when Judge Lewis granted our motion to dismiss. He rejected the IFT’s arguments out of hand in a brief two-page opinion holding that the educational expenses tax credit was fully constitutional.
Still, the battle in Illinois is far from over. The IFT has announced that it will appeal, and the Illinois Education Association and many of the other usual suspects opposing meaningful education reform have filed a second lawsuit in Springfield, Illinois also challenging the constitutionality of the tax credit.
While our opponents will stop at nothing to safeguard the government’s control of education resources, we will be equally tenacious in fighting on behalf of our clients to preserve the tax credit. The Institute for Justice has already intervened in the Springfield case, and we hope that we are able to report news of a second victory to you sometime over the course of the next few months.
Matthew Berry is an Institute staff attorney.