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Private-School Voucher Plan? Rahm Ducks Questions

By  Heather Cherone and Alex Nitkin | August 10, 2017 1:45pm | Updated on August 10, 2017 3:42pm

 Mayor Rahm Emanuel (right) agreed to discuss a plan for tax credits with Roman Catholic Archbishop Blase Cupich, according to an email.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel (right) agreed to discuss a plan for tax credits with Roman Catholic Archbishop Blase Cupich, according to an email.
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BELMONT-CRAGIN — Mayor Rahm Emanuel twice refused Thursday to take a position on whether state lawmakers should include a measure backed by Roman Catholic Archbishop Blase Cupich designed to help families pay for private school tuition.

During an event at Mary Lyon Elementary School in Belmont Cragin designed to tout rising Chicago Public Schools student test scores, Emanuel said his "first and foremost responsibility was to public schools."

"My primary focus is on public education," Emanuel said, brushing aside questions about Cupich's push for a voucherlike program under consideration by state lawmakers and the Trump administration.

If approved, the $100 million tuition tax credit program could help a family of four earning up to $113,775 qualify for a scholarship to send their children to private or parochial schools — or to pay the cost to send their sons or daughters to a public school, outside their home school district, officials said.

Some have called for a full tax credit for the entire cost of tuition.

Cupich, who invited Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, to Rome to witness his elevation to cardinal in November, emailed Emanuel in April about the plan. He said he supported U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' proposal to give credits to taxpayers who donate to a fund that covers private school tuition.

"I am convinced that this would be an enormous boost to the Chicago schools and the thousands of parents who use our schools,” Cupich wrote in the email sent April 11.

Emanuel responded in an email back the next day, saying, “Of course we will discuss,” as first reported by WBEZ.

Enrollment at Chicago's Catholic schools has been dropping for several years, leading to closures of several schools — including St. Benedict High School in North Center — and the merger of four Far Northwest Side Catholic schools into Pope Francis Global Academy.

While DeVos has not released details of her plan, the proposal pending in Springfield is similar.

In December, Emanuel criticized DeVos in an op-ed column in the Washington Post calling the debate over vouchers a "false choice" and urging her to focus on the quality of schools.

In 2011, while running for mayor, Emanuel said he opposed the voucher bill then pending in the General Assembly.

"I believe in school choice, but I believe that, given limited taxpayer dollars, we should be encouraging school choice through the public schools system. I am opposed to the voucher bill," Emanuel wrote in 2011.

The voucherlike proposal — which has drawn fierce opposition from parent-led group Raise Your Hand and the Chicago Teachers Union — has become a part of the wrangling over Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of the state's education formula bill, which he criticizes as a bailout for Chicago.

The proposal has complicated the already fierce fight touched off by Rauner's veto.

Schools had expected to start receiving state funds Thursday, and many suburban and Downstate districts start classes in just a few days.

The Illinois House and Senate must now act to either affirm Rauner's changes or reject them. Until the General Assembly acts, schools will get no state funding, threatening the ability of some districts to open on time and remain open the entire school year.

Although the spending plans for Chicago schools rely on the $250 million vetoed by Rauner, Emanuel has said repeatedly Chicago schools will open Sept. 5 as scheduled.

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