Invest in Kids scholarships help single moms get kids through tough times

Invest in Kids scholarships help single moms get kids through tough times

Illinois’ tax credit scholarship program for low-income families helped these three single moms and their children. Education during COVID-19 is failing low-income students, but the program can help if state lawmakers back bills to save and expand it.

The pandemic is making life hard on all moms of school-aged children, but it can be even worst for single moms whose children don’t fit into the usual school environment. Adrienne DeLeon knows.

“Shortly after my fourth child was born, my husband left,” said DeLeon, of Chicago. “So here I was with four kids, making maybe $28,000. I was struggling to make ends meet. Thankfully, I got 100% tuition assistance for my kids that first year.”

That assistance was through the Invest in Kids Act, which offers donors a 75% state tax credit when they help low-income students attend private schools.

“That immediately helped our family because I was able to give some stability to my kids during a relatively unstable time at home. The program allowed for me to keep that educational part of their life consistent,” DeLeon said.

Like DeLeon’s children, 7,600 low-income students in Illinois depend on Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships to maintain that stability in their education, but another 26,000 K-12 students are on the waitlist seeking help to attend a qualified non-public school. They most need educational options at a time when many low-income students have fallen far behind their peers thanks to remote learning and other disruptions caused by the pandemic.

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 were minority students.

State lawmakers saw the need and created the scholarships in 2017, and last year extended the original sunset date to the end of 2023. But that will be the end, unless state lawmakers act on a trio of bills that 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.

Tracy Smith is a single mother of two in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. She is counting on the scholarships having a future to help her maintain stability in emotionally and financially trying times.

“I experienced some financial difficulties about a few years back after my mom became sick. It was a whole new set of responsibilities to do things while she was ill and eventually passed. I am very thankful for the tax credit scholarship. It allowed me the opportunity to continue the environment my children have been thriving in all these years,” Smith said.

Jennifer Rodriguez and her daughter, Teresa, of Joliet, Illinois, know the disruption and chaos losing the scholarships can cause. Invest in Kids started when Teresa was a freshman at Joliet Catholic.

“Then she received it sophomore year, but junior year she did not receive it,” Rodriguez said. “That was a rough year. I was doing whatever I could to make it work, but there were a couple of times where I really did fall behind making the payments. I had received an email stating that if I didn’t get caught up that she possibly wouldn’t be able to return.”

A counselor helped find money, plus her tax return let her pay off the tuition debt. But the trouble wasn’t over.

“She was waitlisted her senior year. I debated pulling her out of school for senior year. Being on the scholarship waitlist was scary because I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again,’” Rodriguez said.

“Luckily she did get it for senior year also, so that’s been a godsend. I pretty much cried because that was just a big relief off my shoulders, knowing that I wouldn’t be scrambling and trying to make ends meet to give her this opportunity.”

Senate Bill 3618House Bill 5461 and House Bill 5391 would expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students and families. They were introduced by state Sen. Antonio Muñoz, D-Chicago, state Rep. Angelica Guerrero-Cuellar, D-Chicago, and Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside.

DeLeon is one of Muñoz’ constituents. She wants his effort to be successful.

“I like the tax credit scholarship program because it gives families a choice, and opportunities that they might not otherwise have,” DeLeon said. “That’s why it can’t go away.”

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