Illinois Governor Grants Reprieve Of State’s Popular Tax-Credit Scholarship Program, But Political Fight Puts Dent In Donations Even As Applications Surge

Illinois Governor Grants Reprieve of State’s Popular Tax-Credit Scholarship Program, but Political Fight Puts Dent in Donations Even as Applications Surge

One of the largest tax-credit scholarship programs in the country, which assists low-income students in Illinois to attend private schools, managed to survive the state’s budget negotiations despite being threatened with early termination. However, the program is now facing a significant funding shortfall due to months of uncertainty about its future.

Back in February, Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker introduced a budget plan that jeopardized the Invest in Kids program. The plan proposed gradually reducing donation acceptances by 50% annually over the next three years. This unexpected move has discouraged potential donors, resulting in the program falling millions of dollars behind last year’s fundraising pace, despite an increase in the number of students applying.

Invest in Kids is a five-year pilot program that provides scholarships to lower-income students residing in underperforming school districts, enabling them to attend private schools. The scholarships are funded by donations from businesses and individuals, who can write off 75% of their donation as a state tax credit. This program was part of a comprehensive education bill signed into law in 2017 by former Republican Governor Bruce Rauner. Across the nation, there are 18 states that have similar tax-credit scholarship programs, commonly known as vouchers.

In 2018, the program managed to raise over $60 million, falling short of its ambitious $100 million goal but surpassing the fundraising achievements of any other tax-credit scholarship program in its first year. Nevertheless, Invest in Kids soon faced staunch opposition from Governor Pritzker and the state’s teachers unions, who criticized it for diverting funds from public schools to private institutions.

Anthony Holter, the executive director of Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization (SGO), emphasized the importance of preserving Invest in Kids, stating that its elimination would be detrimental to the state’s education reforms. Holter expressed the need to honor the promise made by this program.

By mid-June, the state had only raised $23.2 million for Invest in Kids, compared to $39.2 million during the same period the previous year.

Private school tuition in Illinois averaged $6,772 last year. Empower Illinois awarded approximately 5,500 scholarships with an average value of $6,669 each. However, despite the reduction in funds available through Invest in Kids, the number of scholarship applications continues to rise. Over 43,000 students have applied for a scholarship this year through Empower Illinois, compared to over 32,000 applications the previous year.

Holter emphasized the undeniable demand for scholarships. In a state where half of the 2 million K-12 public school students come from low-income households, and where the spending gap between poor and wealthy districts represents the largest disparity in the country, parents and advocates have sought school choice programs such as tax-credit scholarships to provide opportunities for disadvantaged students who would otherwise be limited to underfunded and underperforming neighborhood schools. While early research indicates that voucher programs might not necessarily lead to improved student test scores, they do tend to increase the likelihood of students attending and graduating from college.

Despite its benefits and appeal, Invest in Kids still faces opposition. The Illinois Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union comprising 135,000 public school educators, has been actively campaigning to eliminate the program. The union argues that Invest in Kids diverts funding from public schools, particularly those in greater need of financial support. They also question the reasoning behind providing wealthy donors with a 75% tax write-off to help private institutions.

However, Holter from Empower Illinois argues that the tax-credit scholarship program actually brings "new money" into the education system instead of detracting from public school funding. He claims that Invest in Kids has helped increase the overall funding for K-12 education in the state.

Based on the donors to Empower Illinois, it appears that few are extremely wealthy, given the sizes of their contributions. Out of nearly 2,000 donors last year, only 11 individuals donated more than $1 million. More than half of Empower Illinois’s donors contributed $4,000 or less.

Source: Empower Illinois

The middle class is not officially defined by the federal government, but according to the Pew Research Center’s calculations, these families fall within the middle income bracket. This bracket is defined as two-thirds to double the median income in the United States, which was $75,500 in 2019, equating to a range of $50,366 to $151,100.

According to data from Empower Illinois, the recipients of their scholarships do not perfectly reflect the demographics of the overall student body in the state. While white students make up roughly 50% of all students in Illinois, they accounted for about 40% of the recipients of scholarships from Empower Illinois in 2018. On the other hand, Hispanic students, who make up less than 30% of the student population statewide, comprised just under 40% of the awardees.

This disproportion is primarily due to the fact that approximately 70% of all scholarships were allocated to students in Cook County, where Chicago is located. Cook County has both a higher proportion of Hispanic students compared to other regions in the state, and it is the only county where there are more Hispanic students than students from any other ethnic group.

The decision to continue the scholarship program was a reversal for Governor Pritzker, who had previously expressed opposition to it during his campaign for governor. He had criticized the program, particularly the $75 million tax credit and the school voucher system created by his predecessor, Governor Rauner. However, in recent months, there has been significant lobbying from teachers and students in support of the program, with representatives from nearly 150 schools advocating for its continuation at the state capital of Springfield.

Governor Pritzker’s spokesperson has stated that he is committed to negotiating with Republicans in good faith and ensuring proper funding for public education in line with historic education funding reform. Despite disappointment from the Illinois Education Association (IEA), there have been positive aspects in the budget agreement, such as additional funding for K-12 education, a minimum salary increase for teachers, and an increase in the minimum wage.

The IEA will continue to lobby the statehouse to end the program, although Empower Illinois is optimistic that the budget agreement will provide stability for the tax-credit scholarship program, reducing the need for annual efforts to save it. Donations to the program have been affected by the uncertainty surrounding it, but fundraising efforts have started to pick up since the agreement was reached.

One parent, Laura Garcia, shared her experience as a recipient of the scholarship program. Her daughter, Jimena, had been struggling in her public school in Cicero, so Garcia wanted to send her to a private school but was concerned about the cost. With the scholarship, Jimena’s academic performance has improved, and she is flourishing socially.

Garcia expressed concern when she heard that there were discussions about discontinuing the program, as she believes it provides a better educational opportunity for her children. She emphasized that her support for the program does not mean she is anti-public school; it simply offers a better situation for her children.

*Note: Some minor details have been altered to improve readability and clarity.*

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  • baileywilliams

    Bailey Williams is an educational blogger and school teacher who uses her blog as a way to share her insights and knowledge with her readers. She has been teaching for over 10 years and has a deep understanding of the school system and how to help students reach their goals. Her blog is packed full of helpful information and resources, so be sure to check it out if you're looking for help with your schoolwork!