Since 2018, more than $250 million has been diverted from Illinois' General Revenue Fund and sent to private, almost all religious schools under the Invest in Kids Act. Last school year 478 schools enrolled more than 9,600 voucher recipients. Unlike public schools, private schools receiving Invest in Kids funds have little oversight, transparency or accountability for the funds they are receiving and do not have to follow most of the same laws and regulations that cover public schools. Here are three case studies of Illinois private schools getting Invest in Kids funding that take a closer look at the problems with using public funds for private schools.
You can download each of these case studies here: The Field School, Joliet Catholic Academy, South Side Christian Academy. The Field School is an illustration of how privatization of public resources results in stratification by race, class and disability status in part via explicit discrimination, and the close connection between voucher supporters and extremists in school board races. Joliet Catholic Academy also illustrates discrimination on the basis of disability, how vouchers are not being used to increase access for Black students, and issues with lack of financial transparency, anti-LGBTQ+ policies and insufficient monitoring of staff on the part of the Diocese of Joliet, which the school is affiliated with. South Side Christian Academy shows how there are not sufficient financial controls over how voucher schools are spending their funds. This school also discriminates on the basis of disability status, as well as LGBTQ+ status, and the racial composition of its staff and board raises questions about discrimination on the basis of race as well.
All three of these schools are located in public school districts that are greatly underfunded by the state, Chicago 299, Joliet Township HS 204 and Peoria 150.
The Field School, Chicago IL
State House District 78, State Senate District 39
One of the 50 Chicago Public Schools closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2013 was Francis Scott Key Elementary, located in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. At the time it was closed, Key’s student body was 95% Black, 95% low-income, 16% students with disabilities.
Key’s building and annex were purchased by The Field School, a private Christian school founded in the same year that the Invest in Kids Act passed, 2017, and previously located in Oak Park. The surrounding community was not in favor of the building’s sale at the time. The Field School used $3.25 million in New Market Tax Credit funds to purchase and renovate the building.
Based on the Illinois State Board of Education’s non-public school data, the Field School’s student body last school year was 27% Black students, 50% low-income and had no special ed students. Until they removed it earlier this year, an FAQ on the Field School website stated that the school does not serve students with moderate to severe disabilities and implied that even students with mild disabilities might be rejected:
"Does the Field School serve students with special needs?
To ensure that we can serve all of our students with excellence, applicants are assessed on a case-by-case basis. The Field School cannot accommodate those with moderate to severe disabilities."
In the 2021-2022 school year, 40% (79 of 199) of the students at the Field school received vouchers via the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program, according to the IL Dept of Revenue. This was at least $851,188 in Invest in Kids voucher funds. In the 2022-2023 school year, 76 of 218 students received vouchers, at least $690,890. Because the vouchers are funded with 75% state tax revenue, the school has received $1.1 million in public funding in the last two school years. Only half of the vouchers at the school went to low-income students, and only one quarter went to Black students.
Nearby public schools
The three neighborhood CPS schools nearby, including the school where Key students were to move to when the school was closed in fall 2013, have very high percentages of students with disabilities: Ellington (18.5%), Brunson (18.9%), DePriest (22.4%). Howe serves 13.4% with disabilities. Even the two CPS charter schools in the area serve 13.7% and 11.9% students with IEPs. All CPS school data found here.
Connections to extremist school board candidate slate
In April 2023 a slate of candidates ran for school board in Wheaton-Warrenville CUSD 200, who were connected to Christian nationalist extremist group Awake Illinois and funded with a PAC that raised $37,000—a huge amount for a local school board race in Illinois ( See also here.) None of the slate's candidates won a seat on the D200 board. (Although in early results slate member Amy Erkenswick had the lead; she was edged out in the final count.) See their Facebook page for an overview of their anti-LGBTQ+, anti-DEI positions.
Several large donors to the CUSD 200 PAC were connected to the Field School board treasurer, Phillip Nussbaum. Nussbaum himself and his wife Judy Nussbaum gave $13,100. Allison Bonga, married to Phillip Nussbaum’s colleague and a Jeanne Ives’ donor, gave $1,960. Another Nussbaum colleague, Mark Bodett, gave $2000.
Joliet Catholic Academy, Joliet IL
State House District 98, State Senate District 49
Joliet Catholic Academy is a private religious school that had 27 students using vouchers via Illinois’ Invest in Kids voucher program last year. They received at least $346,320 in Invest in Kids vouchers. $57,720 of that (17%) went to low-income students (i.e. students who would qualify for free or reduced price meals.) No voucher recipients at JCA last year identified as Black.
JCA had a $12.9 million endowment FY2022, according to this spring 2023 report.
According to the data on non-public schools from the Illinois State Board of Education, in 2022-2023, JCA was 29% students of color, 4% special education students, and 0% low-income students.
ISBE doesn't report data on English-language learners at private schools, so there is no information on whether JCA serves any ELLs. There is no mention on the JCA website of any programs for ELLs, dual-language programs or bilingual services.
Nearby public schools
The public school district where JCA is located, Joliet Township High School District 204, serves a very different population than JCA. Last year it was 79% students of color, 58% low-income students. 14% of students had IEPs, and 13% were ELLs.
Joliet HSD 204 is being shorted about $19 million this year in state funding, $2,818 per student, which they are making up in local property tax revenue. In FY2023, they were only at 64% adequacy.
Discrimination and other issues
JCA’s policies discriminate against students with disabilities. Their Academic Resource Center page says (bolding added):
"Accommodations that fundamentally alter the nature of coursework or the materials assigned, or are unduly burdensome financially or administratively, will not be provided. These may include:
Their handbook says under the section “Wellness Plan” (p. 46) only that as one of the goals promoting physical activity: “JCA will provide reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and / or other limitations.“
Under “Homebound/Hospital Instruction” (p. 19), the handbook states:
"There are times when a JCA student may become temporarily disabled due to an accident or injury and is unable to attend school for an anticipated amount of time. The parents, working in cooperation with the student’s counselor, should establish a continuing education plan. This may include, but is not limited to, homework sent home by the respective JCA teachers, a tutor supplied by the family and/or instructional services offered by the student’s temporary medical facility. For more information, contact the Counseling Office.
If it is determined that the student will not be physically able to return to full-time status, he/she may be requested to withdraw from JCA and enroll in his/her public high school where long term instructional service may be available."
There is also no mention on the JCA website of prohibiting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. JCA isn't run by Diocese of Joliet but by two religious orders, but lists its affiliation on the ISBE website as the Diocese of Joliet. The Diocese of Joliet has a stringently homophobic & transphobic policy for its schools.
Invest in Kids vouchers have funded students at JCA since 2018. Comparing JCA's pre-IIK enrollment to post-IIK enrollment, the percentage of Black & Latinx students has inched up slightly, but mostly due to the fact that the white population has been falling since 2015-2016.
JCA has been grappling with racial injustice since George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. In June 2020, a group of JCA alumni called for the school to fire their theology teacher and Respect Life Club leader, Jeremy Hylka, because of his racist post on social media. The alumni also urged the school to address longstanding issues with systemic racism. (More here and here.) One of the alumni leaders of this campaign, wrote in detail about his experience as a Black student at JCA in light of this incident and campaign.
JCA did put the teacher in question on leave, and he subsequently resigned in the summer of 2020. They also created a diversity and inclusion administrator position later that same year.
Concerningly, that same fired faculty member, Jeremy Hylka, then began teaching at another school in the Diocese of Joliet, St. Joseph Catholic School in Lockport (also a school funded with Invest in Kids dollars.) Hylka was placed on leave from St. Joseph in January 2021 due to allegations about child grooming. And then in the April 2021 he was arrested and charged with child grooming and fired by the Diocese from his positions at St. Joseph as well as St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus. (More here and here.)
“As the diocese embarks on an initiative that could lead to mergers and closings of Catholic parishes and schools, Bishop Ronald Hicks and his aides won’t provide key financial details about their organization even as they acknowledge that finances are part of the reasons for the restructuring.
Among the subjects they won’t address: how much money has been spent under Hicks and his predecessors in settlements and others costs responding to child sex abuse accusations lodged against clergy members and other religious figures.”
The Illinois Attorney General’s report on their investigation of sex abuse scandals in Illinois dioceses issued in May 2023 criticized the Diocese of Joliet for “adherence to off-the-books, unwritten policies that derail justice for abuse survivors and much-needed institutional transparency.”
South Side Christian Academy, Peoria IL
State House District 92, State Senate District 46
South Side Christian Academy located in Peoria is a private religious school that had 23 students using vouchers via Illinois’ Invest in Kids voucher program last year even though it advertises itself as a "tuition-free" school.
SSCA has an explicitly homophobic and transphobic mission statement. And they advertise to parents that they do not accept students with IEPs and may reject admission for students with academic or behavior problems. The school is 90% Black students. The faculty and staff are all white, as are 7 of 9 members of their board.)
The school was founded in 2016 by three couples. One of the founders is the current board president, Chad Zobrist.
According to the school’s 990 form from 2022, the school paid a Morton IL-based firm, N. Zobrist Construction, $1.6 million for a construction contract for their new school building. The total revenue for 2022 for SSCA was $2.2 million according to the same 990, so the construction contract was a major budget item.
N. Zobrist Construction was founded by SSCA board president Chad Zobrist’s grandfather Noah Zobrist, and the company is currently run by Chad’s nephews, Wes, Nick and Grant Zobrist.
The IRS prohibits 501c3 organizations from self-dealing and private benefit. If Chad Zobrist or his wife Susan Zobrist, also a board member according to the 2022 990 form, still have an interest in the firm, this could be a violation of this prohibition or the SSCA board of director’s conflict of interest policy. Because SSCA is a private institution, there are no public documents on whether other firms’ bids were considered for this contract or whether the potential conflict of interest with board members was discussed at a meeting open to the public.
Nearby public schools
South Side Christian Academy is located just a block away from public school Pleasant Hill Elementary, a one-school-district (Pleasant Hill SD 69), where 30% of the students have IEPs and the district is short $2,277 per student in state funding.
A few blocks further from SSCA is Trewyn Primary school, a public school in Peoria District 150, which has 23% of students with IEPs. Peoria D150 as a whole is 18% students with IEPs & had a state aid gap of $2,269/student this year.