Resounding Victory for School Choice: Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Constitutionality of Tuition Tax Credit

Matt Powers
Matt Powers · February 9, 2001

Washington, D.C.—In a significant victory for Illinois families, the Appellate Court of Illinois for the Fourth Judicial District yesterday unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Illinois educational expenses tax credit law.  The ruling of the three-judge panel affirms last April’s ruling by Judge Thomas Appleton of the Sangamon County Circuit Court also finding the tax credit to be fully constitutional.  The tax credit was under attack from the Illinois Education Association and other special-interest organizations opposed to education reform.

The teachers’ union and its allies had argued that the law, which provides a credit against state income taxes for 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, violated four provisions of the Illinois Constitution, two of which deal with establishment of religion.  The appellate court, however, emphatically rejected these arguments.

“Five judges have now looked at the educational expenses tax credit, and all five have concluded that it’s constitutional,” said Matthew Berry, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice, which represented 12 Illinois families in defending the tax credit’s constitutionality.  “It’s time for the teachers’ unions to stop harassing the parents and children of Illinois.”

The opinion written by Justice Rita Garman was a complete victory for school choice supporters.   The court first ruled that the tax credit does not violate the Illinois Constitution because no public money is spent at religious schools.  Rather, the tax credit allows Illinois parents to keep more of their own money to spend on the education of their children as they see fit.

The court went on to say, however, that the tax credit would still be constitutional even if one considered the money claimed through the credit to constitute public funds.  This is because the tax credit is fully consistent with both U.S. Supreme Court and Illinois Supreme Court precedent indicating that programs providing general educational assistance are constitutional so long as religious and nonreligious options are treated equally and funds are guided by the private and independent choices of parents.

“Because of today’s decision, this spring Illinois taxpayers will be spending more money on their children’s education and sending less money to the government,” Berry concluded.

This lawsuit is the second attacking the constitutionality of the tax credit.  In December 1999, Judge Loren P. Lewis of the Franklin County Circuit Court dismissed a similar suit filed by the Illinois Federation of Teachers, also holding that the credit is fully constitutional.  The Institute represents Illinois families in that case as well, and Judge Lewis’ ruling has been appealed to the Appellate Court of Illinois for the Fifth Judicial District.

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