How school choice helped a Joliet student escape public school bullying

How school choice helped a Joliet student escape public school bullying

When her son’s public school couldn’t stop the bullying, this Joliet mom took an administrator’s taunt about switching schools to heart. Illinois’ Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships have let them choose a private school despite COVID-19 hurting family finances.

Delia Lopez’ son faced bullying at the local public school.

“All the other kids were a lot bigger than him. He was very skinny, and he looked different. He had darker skin; he was quiet,” Lopez said. “So, everyone bullied him because he was the small kid, because he was ‘this’ or ‘that’, or ‘stupid.’ But really, he was just different.”

She tried working with the teachers.

“The teachers said, ‘Oh, we’ll handle the situation. He just has to learn that that’s how the other kids are.’”

So she tried getting administrators to help. She was told: “‘Well, ma’am, if you don’t like it, simply put him in a private school.’”

“And that’s what we did. It was the best advice.”

Lopez moved her son to the parish school at their local church, St. Jude Joliet. There, she said he “went back to being that outgoing kid again.”

Public school doesn’t work for every child. It may be because of bullying, or learning style, or individual attention, or quality of the school or faith that private schools offer the better choice.

But too often that choice is denied to some children because they come from lower-income families. In 2021, for every low-income student who received a state scholarship to private school, about four more were seeking help to join them.

When Lopez had her youngest daughter, she knew St. Jude would be the best fit for the family’s faith and culture. But then the pandemic hit.

“We are a family of five, and only my husband works. We couldn’t afford college for the oldest, the bills, sickness and tuition for our daughter.”

“When I came to the office to tell them that my daughter wouldn’t attend here anymore, they told me about Empower Illinois. It felt unreal that we could receive help. We’ve never asked for help. We’ve never needed it,” Lopez said.

Help was available because of Illinois’ 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.

A family’s income cannot exceed 300% of the federal poverty level to participate. While that income threshold translated to a maximum of $78,600 for a family of four in 2021, the average family income was $38,403 for those granted scholarships through Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship organization. More than half of recipients are minority students.

“It’s marvelous, and when we think, as Latinos, the doors are closed for us, there are no more opportunities. When we knock on the door, someone comes out and says, ‘Yes, you can do it. There’s help.’ And, well, in my case, it has been this, Empower Illinois,” Lopez said.

Her daughter is one of 7,600 low-income students in Illinois who depend on Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships. Another 26,000 K-12 students are on the waitlist seeking help to attend a qualified non-public school.

Low-income and minority students have suffered the most academically thanks to remote learning, absenteeism and other disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. They most need educational options as a way to catch up.

“Our daughter was able to stay in school the last two years thanks to the Invest in Kids scholarships, and now she’s in sixth grade,” Lopez said.

Currently the Invest in Kids scholarships are set to end in 2023. State lawmakers can change that by acting on Senate Bill 3618, introduced by state Sen. Antonio Muñoz, D-Chicago, to expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students and families.

The bill would 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.

Lopez and her family have worked hard to provide an educational environment where her kids can thrive, free from bullying, with individual attention and strengthening their faith. The thousands of other families waiting for scholarships deserve the same.

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