Lawmakers seek to dismantle school-choice scholarship program for low-income students

Lawmakers seek to dismantle school-choice scholarship program for low-income students

A bill in the Illinois Senate could axe the state’s first-ever tax credit scholarship program.

It’s evident that too many Illinois students aren’t receiving the education they deserve.

Illinois students’ level of college-readiness trails the national average, despite the fact that per-student education spending in Illinois exceeds many of its higher-performing neighbors and peer states.

But Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson recently offered a hopeful insight. Referring to Chicago’s selective test-in high schools, Jackson said, “We want to see more students going to higher-tier schools, we want to see more diversity in our schools and we want parents and families to be more satisfied with their choices.”

Fortunately, with last year’s passage of Senate Bill 1947, the choices from which parents and families can derive such satisfaction has expanded statewide. The state’s sweeping education funding changes included the Invest in Kids Act, a tax credit program through which students from low-income households can earn scholarships to qualifying private schools.

Unfortunately, the Invest in Kids Act has been greeted with opposition from those invested in the status quo.

In addition to Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker having explicitly positioned himself against the Invest in Kids Act, urging that it be discontinued “as soon as possible,” some lawmakers are floating a proposal in the General Assembly that would risk derailing the program.

While the Invest in Kids Act includes a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2024, the scholarship program could be hobbled much sooner due to Senate Bill 2236, a proposed amendment that would allow the state to withhold tax credits obliged to scholarship donors.

Empowering disadvantaged students

When the Invest in Kids Act was signed into law last year, lawmakers established a foundation upon which underprivileged students can be lifted from poor-performing public schools and allowed access to schools better equipped to accommodate their needs.

The first program of its kind in Illinois, the program offers a tax incentive for individuals and businesses to donate to nonprofit scholarship-granting organizations, or SGOs. Under the act, the state offers a 75-cent tax credit for every dollar in charitable contributions to SGOs. In turn, SGOs use a portion of donor contributions to award scholarships to students.

Donors are allowed a maximum tax credit of $1 million, while the program allows the Illinois Department of Revenue, or IDOR, to issue up to $75 million in tax credits each calendar year. Those who wish to donate may register through the IDOR website.

Scholarships are limited to students whose family households live within 300 percent of the federal poverty line. But the program prioritizes the neediest students, offering the largest scholarships to those within 185 percent of the poverty line, as well as those who live in low-performing school districts.

Overwhelming demand

“The parents are overjoyed,” said John Wilson, director of the Children’s Tuition Fund of Illinois, one of nine SGOs approved by IDOR.

In early January, when the state first opened scholarship applications for the program to the public, IDOR reported $36 million in approved SGO contributions within 48 hours, according to the Illinois News Network. While donations have slowed since then, with contributions hovering around $41 million as of April 2018, the demand for scholarships has been overwhelming.

Depending on the applicant, scholarships awarded through the Children’s Tuition Fund have ranged between $1,800 and $12,900. Due to the program’s popularity, however, SGOs’ donation funds have struggled keep pace with parents’ enthusiasm. “The current waitlist is over 5,000 student applications and grows each day,” Wilson said.

He’s not alone. Empower Illinois, another SGO, received 24,000 applications as soon as its scholarship program went live, causing its website to crash. In total, the group has received applications from 50,000 students.

“There’s a wide variety of reasons” families are seeking out these scholarships, according to Empower Illinois President Myles Mendoza, “some students may be currently enrolled in a private school and can’t afford it or the school is having financial difficulty … there are some students who have unique learning needs, they may be profoundly gifted or could have a learning disorder … a kid who’s been bullied and doesn’t have the ability to opt into another school. But the reality is kids who didn’t before [now] have options because of the [scholarships].”

The Big Shoulders Fund had to seal off scholarships within less than a month after receiving 12,000 applications. This reflected a “tremendous demand and need for educational opportunity,” according to the organization. The Children at the Crossroads Foundation also had to suspend operations due to a high volume of applicants.

Threat to school choice

In a misguided effort to direct focus toward the fiscal drawbacks of Illinois’ faltering public school system, SB 2236 would hold students hostage to that very system.

The bill, filed Oct. 18, 2017, by state Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, would prohibit the Illinois State Board of Education from delivering scholarship tax credits in the event that the state doesn’t meet the “minimum funding level” for public school districts, per Illinois’ School Code. In other words, if the state fails to appropriate funds at levels put forth by Illinois’ incredibly complex and controversial “evidenced-based” funding model, SB 2236 would ensnare more students in schools they’re trying to escape.

By freezing tax credits to scholarship donors, Bertino-Tarrant’s bill eliminates the incentive needed to fund the scholarship program, allowing thousands of families to choose a school that best suits their needs. The bill currently enjoys eight additional co-sponsors.

For scholarship organizations working to fundraise to provide more scholarships, this bill is an ominous signal. Has it had an effect on donations?

“Definitely,” Mendoza said. “Obviously [SB 2236] is a vehicle to try to hurt our fundraising. And if there aren’t scholarships in these kids’ hands there’s no mama bears and papa bears to fight for [the tax credit scholarship program].”

The importance of choice

For the majority of Illinois families, schools are determined not by the needs of students, but by the ZIP codes assigned to their homes. While this is a satisfactory system for households in affluent areas with sufficient resources to fund high-performing schools, it prevents opportunities for students in low-income districts.

By expanding the choice of schools available to low-income households, the Invest in Kids Act allows students to be served according to their unique needs, rather than their street address.

SB 2236 would yield another failing grade for Springfield lawmakers.

Amanda McDonald contributed to this report.

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