How Pritzker picks on a freshman by going after scholarship tax credit

How Pritzker picks on a freshman by going after scholarship tax credit

A tax credit is providing scholarships for Illinois’ low-income and minority students, but Gov. J.B. Pritzker is targeting the program that lets them thrive when public schools are a poor fit.

Many of Illinois’ public schools have been shuttered for over a year. Now, Gov. J.B. Pritzker is threatening to cut off one of the few ways low-income and working-class kids and families gain access to educational options.

The governor proposed in his fiscal year 2022 budget that the state should drastically reduce the incentive to donate to Illinois’ tax credit scholarship program. It offers low-income families scholarship money so their kids can attend the schools that best suits their needs.

Here’s how it works. The Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program, which passed in 2017, allows individuals and corporations to donate money to the scholarship program and receive a tax credit of 75 cents for every $1 donated, up to a maximum credit of $1 million. Scholarship money is awarded to families whose income does not exceed 300% of the federal poverty level: a family of four earning $73,800 or less would qualify.

Pritzker wants to reduce the current 75% tax credit to 40%, which he says will generate $14 million in general revenue funds. But the governor would do so on the backs of low-income families and students who depend upon tax credit scholarships for their education. Empower Illinois reported the average annual household income of participants is $38,000, and 49% of participating students are Black or Hispanic.

If Pritzker reduces the tax credit donors receive, it’s likely this program will be less attractive to donors and lead to fewer low-income minority students being able to find fits for their educational needs. Pritzker included this proposal in a list of “corporate loopholes” he’d like to close, but the vast majority of the program’s donors are individuals – not corporations.

“We know we are helping people at the school who might be friends with our kids or someone our kids were playing with,” said Kimberly Brooks, who started by donating $1,600 to her children’s school in Chicago and reinvests the tax credit in the next year’s donation. “So, we really like the program, and I’m really sad to see them try to dismantle it.”

Illinois’ tax credit scholarship program, which is the largest in the nation, helps families such as Nicole Sniff’s, who is raising her six children with her husband in Normal, Illinois.

Her husband is a pastor and Nicole is a stay-at-home mom. Two of Nicole’s children have learning disabilities and one has autism. Drake, her third-oldest child, dealt with some behavioral challenges earlier in his education when he was attending public school. Nicole said the teacher’s advice was to medicate Drake for ADHD.

But as his mother, Nicole knew Drake’s behaviors stemmed from anxiety and stress – the Sniffs adopted Drake when he was 5 years old. The behaviors he had learned before joining the family weren’t always positive.

Nicole knew Drake’s public school wasn’t a fit, based on his needs. So she enrolled him in Calvary Christian Academy, where his fourth-grade teacher said she saw his potential and dedicated herself to getting him the resources he needed.

“No one has mentioned medication and Drake has never had a behavior problem since we put him in Calvary,” she said. “Drake is 15 now and in his freshman year of high school. He is excelling in school despite his learning disabilities. The Tax Credit Scholarship made that possible.”

If the Illinois General Assembly does as Pritzker wishes and reduces the tax credit scholarship program, students such as Drake will risk losing access to life-changing educational support.

As lawmakers consider their budget-making this spring, they should ask themselves: What kind of chance in life do they owe Drake? How will they explain their decision to him?

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