After losing scholarship, Chicago family sold car to keep kids in private school

After losing scholarship, Chicago family sold car to keep kids in private school

Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships give opportunities to minority families and stability to students when hard times hit. Tough choices await when the scholarships dry up.

Manuel Rodriguez’s advertising business lost income during the pandemic, so his family had to cut back. They refused to give up their children’s private education, and it cost them a car.

“In 2020, unfortunately, we didn’t receive Invest In Kids scholarships for either of our children. It affected us a lot because there wasn’t a lot of work, either. We had to reduce our expenses, and even still we fought hard to keep both our kids in private school. We had to sell a car in order to stay afloat financially,” Rodriguez said.

Along with the Rodriguez children, 7,600 low-income students in Illinois rely on Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships to maintain that stability in their education. Whether for personal values, educations that better fit their learning needs, safety or financial reasons, over four times that number want help to attend a qualified, non-public school. Over 32,000 are on the Empower Illinois waitlist alone.

“The scholarships help us a lot because I am self-employed, and I don’t always have a fixed income. On my own, it would be very difficult to afford the tuition and fees at our local private school. The scholarship has helped me to keep my kids in a good school,” Rodriguez said.

Empower Illinois reported the average annual household income of participants is $38,000, and 49% of participating students are Black or Hispanic.

For the Rodriguez family, the switch to private school came out of fear for their son’s safety at their local public school.

“Unfortunately, my son was bullied in 4th and 5th grade so we decided to take him out because it was a constant problem. Other kids would joke about him, blame him for things he didn’t do, make fun of him, or try to peer-pressure him into doing things he didn’t want to do.”

“He didn’t say anything, but we noticed that he lost the will to go to public school. As parents we noticed that, and we decided it was time to look for other educational options,” Rodriguez said.

The Rodriguez family found refuge at St. Nicholas of Tolentine after hearing great things about it from community members. They received financial assistance for their son, and the next year their daughter, to access a safe haven from bullying at the public schools.

“As soon as we switched to St. Nicholas our son told us that he felt the difference in the environment, values, education, in everything they teach them in the private Catholic school. From the first day, he felt welcome, and his grades improved.

“When [our daughter] started at St. Nicholas, she immediately had more self-confidence. She had a greater love for school. Thankfully, for 2021-2022, Melanie qualified and received the Invest in Kids scholarship again. She is very happy, and working very hard to keep her grades up.”

Scholarships for the Rodriguez family were provided through the Invest in Kids Act, which offers donors a 75% state tax credit when they help low-income students attend private schools. State lawmakers created the scholarships in 2017, and last year extended the original sunset date to the end of 2023.

But that end date means the Rodriguez family and thousands of others may lose access to those opportunities unless state lawmakers act on Senate Bill 3618, introduced by state Sen. Antonio Muñoz, D-Chicago, to expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students and families.

Lawmakers through the bill could make the program permanent, increase the emphasis on supporting students already in the program, expand it to pre-K students, increase the credit to 100% of a donation and allow business donors to target their gifts to specific schools, as individual donors presently can.

The Rodriguez’ went to great lengths to protect their children’s educations and safety in difficult financial times. Expanding Invest in Kids will ensure more families across Illinois can access safe, quality educational environments for their kids now and in the future.

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