Pritzker budget slashes school choice scholarships for low-income students

Pritzker budget slashes school choice scholarships for low-income students

The Pritzker administration’s first budget proposes phasing out a school choice program for disadvantaged families. Low-income families loved the program. Public teachers’ unions decried it.

A program to help low-income students afford the choice to escape when public schools fail them is being slashed in Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020.

State lawmakers passed the Invest in Kids Act in 2017 as part of Illinois’ education funding bill. The program is the state’s first-ever school choice program, and among the largest in the nation, giving disadvantaged students a chance to go to private schools by giving scholarship donors a tax credit.

The program works like this: The state offers a 75-cent tax credit for every dollar in charitable contributions to scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs. In turn, SGOs use a portion of donor contributions to award scholarships to students within 300 percent of the federal poverty line, prioritizing the neediest students first. The program allows donors a maximum tax credit of $1 million per year, and imposes a $75 million cap on total annual contributions.

While the Invest in Kids Act came with a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2024, the budget Pritzker’s office released Feb. 20 would begin dismantling it sooner. The budget recommends first lowering the cap from $75 million to $50 million and phasing the program out over the next three fiscal years. The budget anticipates limiting scholarships will bring in $6 million, which the state would then redirect to public schools.

Given that the governor could just let the scholarship program expire in 2024, it makes little sense to prematurely pull the plug on the Invest in Kids Act. Worst of all, those students most harmed by taking away their Invest in Kids Act scholarships are the same students the governor would surely hope his budget helps.

And then there’s the math: $75 million in tax credits is yielding $100 million in private school scholarships for low-income Illinois students. Yet under Pritzker’s 2020 budget, eliminating $25 million of the tax credits, which are worth $37.5 million in scholarships for needy students, only hands another $6 million to public schools?

Besides, the amount of public school funding is not the issue. The issue is how much is spent on administration rather than on students. Consolidating public school districts would decrease overhead and allow Illinois to invest money in classrooms and results, rather than spending more than the national average and more than our neighboring states to achieve mediocre results.

The Illinois Policy Institute has highlighted the stories of families across Illinois with children who’ve been given opportunities through the Invest in Kids Act. They have choices they once thought were impossible.

For Marlene Suarez, a native of the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, rising tuition costs at her two daughters’ Catholic school nearly priced her children out of a decent education. Fortunately, Suarez won scholarships for her girls through the Invest in Kids Act.

“There’s tutors, there’s one-on-one always with the teachers, there’s more communication. Access to getting help is always there,” she said, “… in a public [school] setting there is so much more violence that I’ve seen.”

Despite the clear benefit to families such as Suarez’s, state lawmakers attempted to derail the program last year with Senate Bill 2236. Those past efforts brought grief to Shannon Beier, of Chicago’s blighted Woodlawn neighborhood. Beier also won Invest in Kids scholarships for her children.

Beier was ecstatic about the education her kids were able to receive through the program.

“We’re going to school with kids of all races who are way wealthier than us and have way less than us. And the teachers are really teaching them how to love to learn.”

“It makes me sad,” Beier said when lawmakers tried to kill the program last year. “If we didn’t have the scholarships, we wouldn’t be able to go.”

“There are a lot of kids, mine included, who are going to pay the price for that” she said. “It’s a long-term price, and Pritzker is not going to be the one paying for it.”

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 – as opposed to their ZIP code. The Pritzker administration should listen to the needs of the students, rather than the vested interests opposed to giving low-income families a choice and a clear path out of poverty.

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