The Policy Shop: Why Springfield should save the Invest in Kids Act

The Policy Shop: Why Springfield should save the Invest in Kids Act

This edition of The Policy Shop is by policy analyst Hannah Schmid.

On Tuesday the Illinois General Assembly will begin the fall veto session, when they have a chance to override the vetoes issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker plus put other bills in motion. The best use of their time this fall is to save the only real choice low-income parents have regarding their children’s educations – the Invest in Kids Act.

Over 9,600 low-income students rely on scholarships from the program so they can attend a private school that better fits their needs when public schools don’t work for them. Some were bullied, some need extra attention, some need the close-knit bonds of a private school, some need better academic and extracurricular choices – the reason Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates chose a private school for her son.

But before state lawmakers start hearing from the teachers unions that oppose Illinois’ only school choice program, maybe they should hear from some of the kids who need the program’s investment.

But what about the children?

“I don’t want lawmakers to look at this easily. I want them to put some hard time into thinking about how this will affect other peoples’ lives. Especially the kids that are struggling with money,” said Baileigh Lavery, a freshman at Yorkville Christian High School in Plainfield who received one of the scholarships. She and her twin sister were bullied in public school and needed the financial help after their father died. “Words cannot even begin to express how much these scholarships can truly mean to someone. I want lawmakers to give other kids opportunities to feel the change I felt.”

“My older brother went to public school and, apparently, he faced some bullying. Mom didn’t want to put the rest of us through that, so she tried to keep us in private school. But that wouldn’t be possible without the tax credit scholarship,” said Ian Holmes-White, a freshman attending Leo Catholic High School in Chicago on an Invest in Kids scholarship. “I know that there are other schools, but Leo is the best school for me. It’s a place where I can be myself and not be judged. For the first time in my life, I feel like I enjoy school.”

“I want lawmakers to know that some people out here don’t have enough money to better themselves, so they depend on [Invest in Kids]. I feel like the scholarship should be kept so people can do better for themselves, do better in the future and hopefully succeed in life,” said George Kokuro, a freshman in Joliet who is awaiting a scholarship to attend Joliet Catholic and get a better start on his deceased father’s wish he become a lawyer. “My mom, she works in a warehouse. I should be able to take care of her in the future. And I feel like, to be able to do that, I have to have the best education.”

Cost of no longer investing in kids

If state lawmakers plan to tell the 9,656 students who received Invest in Kids scholarships last year that the program will sunset as scheduled at the end of 2023, they should expect some hard questions when they are next up for election. The national trend is to expand school choice, and Illinois is poised to regress.

Invest in Kids was a bipartisan policy. Since the program launched in the 2018-2019 school year, 40,940 scholarships have been awarded.

But many more students, like George, remain on waiting lists to receive these life-changing scholarships. As of March 2023, Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship granting organization, had 24,000 students already in line for a 2023-2024 scholarship.

Over half of the low-income students receiving scholarships from Empower Illinois are Black or Hispanic. Family incomes average $45,000 per year for program recipients, but over 25% last year were below the poverty level of $26,500 for a family of four. Most of the scholarships go to Cook County, with over 4,000 in Chicago. For the full distribution and who represents those children’s interests, see this article.

What does it cost Illinois?

The Invest in Kids Act encourages private donors to fund scholarships for low-income children so they can choose a private school that better fits their needs. Individuals and businesses who contribute to a scholarship granting organization get an income tax credit equal to 75% of their donation, with a program limit of $75 million per year and donor limit of $1 million per year.

The program itself is funded through donations from private individuals and businesses. The state doesn't directly fund the program but did give up some revenue by allowing nearly $57 million in tax credits for the scholarships awarded to low-income students in the 2022-2023 school year.

The foregone revenue equals about $5,900 per scholarship recipient. The average operational spending per pupil in Illinois public schools is nearly $18,000.

That means government spends three times as much to educate a student in public school as it does to allow tax credit scholarships for Invest in Kids recipients. On net, government saves nearly $12,100 per student who receives an Invest in Kids scholarship, freeing up those resources to be used elsewhere – including in public schools.

Why do some say it takes away from public education?

Because they are opponents who are misinterpreting the program. The program diverts no funding from public education.

None of the tax credits come out of the state’s public education funds. In fact, since the Invest in Kids program started, state and local funding to Illinois public schools has increased by nearly $2 billion even as total enrollment has declined.

Do Illinoisans support school choice?

Yes. By a wide margin. A poll of Illinois voters conducted by Echelon Insights for the Illinois Policy Institute found 63% supported the state’s Invest in Kids school choice program to only 21% in opposition. That’s 3 to 1 Illinois voters in support of the state’s only school choice program.

The program has at least 60% support from each main political ideology, with independents most in favor at 67%.

Another poll found 71% of Black voters and 81% of Hispanic voters backed it.

Why are teachers unions so opposed to it?

Students fleeing Chicago Public Schools and other public schools means parents don’t want what teachers unions are peddling, so teachers unions are experiencing a feeling of failure despite the need for educational diversity – especially for disadvantaged families. Chicago teachers also want better for their own children: nearly 40% sent their kids to private schools.

But power is likely even more important than pride, and teachers unions see school choice as a threat to that power. School-choice programs take away their monopoly over education. The power-plays they frequently use to get what they want — such as strikes, which are allowed in Illinois — would lose their potency when parents have options.

Do public and private education compete?

Yes, which yields better outcomes. But more importantly they complement one another. The real value of the Invest in Kids scholarship is giving low-income parents autonomy over their children’s educations. Most low-income families have no options beyond their neighborhood public schools.

As far as quality, the statistics tell the story: Just 20% of third through eighth graders in Chicago Public Schools could read at grade level and 15% perform math proficiently in 2022.

Yet in the Archdiocese of Chicago, 72% of its students are at or above grade level in reading and 63% could perform math proficiently, according to its 2021-2022 progress report.

It’s that excellence that Davis Gates, who earns over $289,000 per year, could select for her own child: he attends a high school that is part of the Archdiocese of Chicago school system. Eleven students attend her child’s school on Invest in Kids scholarships because their parents don’t make $289,000 a year.

If state lawmakers fail to extend the program, those 11 students – plus another 9,600 across Illinois – may be forced to leave their school. Some will go into the system Davis Gates rejected for her own child. Click here to contact your lawmakers before Tuesday to see where they stand on Invest in Kids.

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