Fact check: 7 things school choice opponents got wrong about Invest in Kids

Fact check: 7 things school choice opponents got wrong about Invest in Kids

Illinois Families for Public Schools released a pamphlet with misleading information about the Invest in Kids Tax-Credit Scholarship program and its effects on the public school system in Illinois. Here are corrections to seven things they got wrong.

Illinois Families for Public Schools, which has ties to the Chicago Teachers Union, just put out a “zine” filled with misleading or inaccurate claims about Illinois’ tax-credit scholarship program for low-income families.

In between the booklet’s Godzilla cartoons, they join the CTU in making inaccurate claims as they try to kill the program. Here is a rundown of some of the things the group got wrong.

Bad claim No. 1: “Since 2017, Illinois’ voucher program has diverted more than $250 million in state revenue to private schools!”

Reality: The program has taken no funds from public schools. Public schools have nearly $2 billion more and fewer students since Invest in Kids started.

The Invest in Kids scholarship program offers a 75% income tax credit to individuals and businesses that donate to qualified scholarship granting organizations. Since 2018, the first year in which low-income students received scholarships to attend the school of their choice, the program has awarded more than $280 million in scholarships to eligible students, which represents about $210 million in income tax credits from the state.

During this same period, state and local funding to Illinois public schools has increased by nearly $2 billion.

Bad claim No. 2: “Wealthy taxpayers can redirect what they owe on their state tax bill to private school coffers – up to $1 million a year!”

Reality: The program offers an incentive to encourage taxpayers to engage in philanthropy by providing limited tax credits on the dollars donated.

Individuals receive a 75% tax credit on the dollars they donate to qualified scholarship granting organizations, up to $1 million per taxpayer, per year. If an individual donates $10,000 to a scholarship granting organization, they receive $7,500 in tax credits against their state tax bill. But the donor is still “down” the $2,500 that they otherwise would still have in their pocketbooks if not for their philanthropic activity.

A benefit of this program is that it allows middle-income Illinois families who might otherwise have little capacity to give the opportunity to engage more meaningfully in philanthropy.

“We’ve been donating to the Tax Credit Scholarship for the last few years. We love the program because it allows us to give back to our community in a meaningful way,” said Kimberly Brooks, who has been a donor to the Invest in Kids program for years. “The rolling effect of the scholarship program makes it very accessible [for middle income families] to donate meaningful amounts of money.”

The program acts as a credit against taxes owed. If a donor doesn’t owe taxes, or owes less than the tax credit, they don’t receive the funds back.

Bad claim No. 3: “Public dollars that should go to public schools are being used to cover tuition costs at private schools.”

Reality: No dollars are diverted from public schools for the Invest in Kids scholarships.

Donors who send funds to scholarship granting organizations still pay property taxes, which are the largest contributor to public school funds. So do the families of the students receiving scholarships. In fact, a study conducted a decade ago found government saves up to $3,000 per student receiving a tax-credit scholarship to attend private school because taxes were collected without needing to educate that child.

Bad claim No. 4: “Meanwhile, a whopping 80% of Illinois public schools are underfunded. This year state school funding is $7 billion less than it should be!”

Reality: Illinois’ public K-12 education budget for the 2023-2024 school year increased by $600 million since last school year to a record $10.4 billion.

In fact, funding to Illinois public schools has continued to increase, by about $1.98 billion, since the inception of school choice scholarships for low-income children, contrary to opponents’ claims it siphons money from public schools.

That funding boost comes as statewide enrollment has dropped nearly 7.5% since the 2018-2019 school year, the first year in which the Invest in Kids program began awarding private school scholarships in Illinois.

Bad claim No. 5: “95% of private schools getting vouchers in Illinois are religious.”

Reality: Private schools do not receive vouchers. Eligible, low-income students receive scholarships to attend a school of their choosing.

A parent should decide what school is the best fit for their student. A family’s income should not determine whether their child can enroll in the private school that they determine is the best fit for their child’s needs, regardless of its religious affiliation.

And as far as religious affiliations, that didn’t stop CTU President Stacy Davis Gates from picking a parochial school for her son or Illinois Education Association chief lobbyist Sean Denney from picking a Catholic school for his kids.

Davis Gates is an example of parents exercising school choice. Despite being an active opponent to the tax credit scholarship program for low-income students, Davis Gates and her family decided to enroll one of their children in a religious private school to give him greater access to activities and academic programs.

Bad claim No. 6: “Supporters say vouchers ‘rescue’ children from public schools, but private schools have little oversight or regulation.”

Reality: Opponents should be concerned with declining proficiency of students in Illinois public schools.

Proficiency is hitting its lowest levels in recent school years following COVID-19 school disruptions. But even before the pandemic, proficiency among Illinois students was at unacceptable levels. The 2013-2014 school year was the last year in which more students were meeting proficiency standards than failing to reach grade-level standards in both reading and math.

Yet this failing public school system continues to receive more funding even as it loses students.

Not to mention, Chicago Public Schools in 2021 ranked 100% of its teachers as proficient or excellent, the same year only 21% of elementary students were proficient in reading and 16.5% in math.

If this is considered “oversight” or “regulation,” then there is something wrong with the system.

Every parent should have the opportunity to enroll their children in schools that best fit their needs, regardless of their income level. If a private school fails to serve a family well, then that family can choose to leave. If a public school fails to serve a family well, then that family’s ticket to leave depends on being lucky enough to obtain an Invest in Kids scholarship, figuring out a way to pay private school tuition or getting accepted to a public charter school.

For low-income families in Chicago Public Schools, where just 14% of low-income third- through eighth-graders were proficient in reading in 2022 and 9% in math, they are trapped in the public system unless state lawmakers extend the scholarship program beyond 2023.

Bad claim No. 7: “Voucher programs have been spreading around the country in a push by rightwing extremists to privatize public schools.”

Reality: School choice passed with bipartisan support in 2017. It still has bipartisan support among Illinois voters, with 64% supporting it and 63% specifically supporting the Invest in Kids program. Another poll found 71% of Black voters and 81% of Hispanic voters backed it.

Appetite for school choice programs is expanding as more parents seek alternatives to public education for their children. This is not a push to privatize public education. It is a push to put parents in charge of their children’s educations and afford parents the opportunity to choose an education that best fits their children’s needs.

Research has shown the competitive effects of school choice programs result in public school students tending to experience small gains on test scores.

Since Illinois enacted the Invest in Kids Tax-Credit Scholarship Program in 2017, five other Midwest states have enacted school choice programs. In the past year, two Midwest states – Indiana and Ohio – expanded their existing school choice programs to include nearly universal eligibility statewide.

This fall marks the last chance for the scholarship program

The Illinois General Assembly has one more chance to save the Invest in Kids program during its veto session starting Oct. 24. Contact your state lawmaker and ask where they stand on Invest in Kids scholarships and giving low-income families a choice about schools.

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