School choice scholarship renewal ‘the fight’ of Illinois’ veto session

(The Center Square) – With a new school year underway or about to begin for students in schools across Illinois, some attending a private school using scholarships from the Invest in Kids program…

(The Center Square) – With a new school year underway or about to begin for students in schools across Illinois, some attending a private school using scholarships from the Invest in Kids program could be left in limbo unless lawmakers take action to continue the program.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker made a stop at Community STEM Center in Matteson on Thursday to highlight the start of the school year. 

“I’ve made it my mission to ensure that our students get the quality education they deserve,” Pritzker said. “No matter what zip code they live in, no matter what their income level is, we need fairness and equality in our education system and also we need to, frankly, invest in it.” 

The state has increased public K-12 funding by $350 million several years in a row. Total K-12 spending for the fiscal year that started July 1, is $10.4 billion, around a fifth of overall state spending. 

But, the privately-funded Invest in Kids program, which grants scholarships to eligible families to send their children to a school of their choice, is set to expire at the end of the year. 

State Sen. Andrew Chesney, R-Freeport, told The Center Square its crucial legislators extend the program during the fall veto session. 

“I think that’s really the fight of veto session, not only renewing that, but trying to get additional monies for it,” Chesney said. “The idea that outcomes are determined by ZIP code is just outrageous.”

Public school statistics from the Illinois State Board of Education show statewide average proficiency levels of 30% for English/language arts, 26% for math and 50% for science. Thirty-percent of eighth graders are passing Algebra 1. 

breakout of ISBE data by Wirepoints shows how low proficiency levels are for various areas of the state. Their report shows 7% of Rockford’s Black third-graders, 16% of Decatur’s white third-graders and 11% of Elgin’s Hispanic third-graders can read at grade level.

Invest in Kids scholarship granting organization Empower Illinois reports 92% satisfaction rate for parents asked how well their child’s experience matched with why they applied for the program. Nearly 90% of those families who were entering a private school directly from a public school indicated their students were doing “extremely well” or “very well.”    

“Ending the Tax Credit Scholarship Program means ripping scholarships away from the most vulnerable, poor, and working-class children and their families,” the group said in a July 14 statement.

Pritzker said extending Invest in Kids is up to the legislature.  

“I also know how important it is that we support kids who are going to private school too, however that gets done, I know the legislature is considering a number of different options,” Pritzker said Thursday. 

The program allows private donors who give to the program to receive a 75% Illinois income tax credit toward the total of their donation. Earlier this year, Pritzker questioned the income tax credit amount. 

“Why have we created a program in which we’re paying for 75% of it and not having the rest of the country essentially paying 40%,” Pritzker said

Chesney worries the Democratic majority could chip away at the program when they return in October. 

“I think you’re going to see some reduction [in the tax credit amount] so they can placate and pander to the teachers’ unions and say that they are going to roll this back slowly and chip away at it,” Chesney said. “So they’ll play some gamesmanship with it.”

In campaign material opposing an extension of the Invest in Kids program, the Illinois Education Association union said the program “costs Illinoisans $75 million a year.” 

“That’s $75 million being sent to private schools at a time when more than 80 percent of our public schools are not fully funded,” the union said. 

For the Invest in Kids program, the Illinois Department of Revenue shows nearly $32 million in authorized contributions to date, about a third of the total contribution limit of $100 million. 

More than 9,000 students in Illinois received the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship during the last school year. Once a child receives a scholarship, the family income cannot exceed 400% of the federal poverty level.