What is the Invest in Kids scholarship program, and why it matters

What is the Invest in Kids scholarship program, and why it matters

Over 9,600 low-income students rely on the Invest in Kids scholarship program to attend schools that best fit their needs. Here’s what you need to know about the program and why it is important lawmakers extend the program this fall.

What is Invest in Kids?

The Invest in Kids Act encourages private donors to fund scholarships for low-income children so they can choose a private school when the public system is not meeting their needs. It started in 2017 but will expire at the end of 2023 if it is not extended.

Individuals and businesses who contribute to a scholarship granting organization get an income tax credit equal to 75% of their donation. The state limits the program to $75 million per year and limits tax credits to $1 million per taxpayer per year.

How many students does it help?

In the 2022-2023 school year, 9,656 students received Invest in Kids scholarships to attend schools that best fit their needs. Since the program launched in the 2018-2019 school year, 40,940 scholarships have been awarded.

But many more students 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.

Who does it help? Where do they live?

Over half of the low-income students receiving scholarships from Empower Illinois are Black or Hispanic. Scholarship recipients are divided into five regions across the state. Empower grants the most scholarships to Region 1, which encompasses Cook County.

For a detailed look at where the nearly 9,600 students receiving scholarships statewide go to school and who’s responsible for representing their welfare in Springfield, see this article.

Why does it matter?

Thousands of low-income families rely on the Invest in Kids scholarships so their children can attend a school that best fits their needs. Without these scholarships, most of the families would be left without options and unable to afford a private education.

Shaka Rawls spent his life on Chicago’s South Side, attended Leo High School, taught in Chicago Public Schools and became principal of his alma mater. He’s overseen a 65% rise in enrollment and 21% boost in test scores at Leo. He knows what the right educational fit means for his 44 students from low-income families able to attend Leo thanks to Invest in Kids scholarships. He also knows what it will mean for those students if state lawmakers let the program die.

“The power of these scholarships can’t be summarized in rhetoric or legislation. The power and potential reside with the young people,” he said.

He’s just one of thousands who have seen or benefitted firsthand from the opportunities provided by the Invest in Kids scholarships. You can hear how transformational these scholarships are from the students themselves: Baileigh Lavery, Ian Holmes-White and George Kokuro have lived that change. You can also hear from parents and educators at the heart of the program.

Who is eligible for a scholarship?

Students must come from a household with an income below 300% of the federal poverty level to be eligible for an initial scholarship. The program expands options for families who want to send their child to a private school but can’t afford the tuition.

Most families who receive scholarships earn much less than that.

Over one-quarter of the scholarship recipients in the 2022-2023 school year had a family income of less than 100% of the poverty level. For a family of four, that’s $26,500.

Two-thirds of families had a family income of less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or $49,025 for a family of four.

Why is it ending if it is so great?

The Invest in Kids Act was enacted as a pilot program in 2017. The program’s success led lawmakers to extend the program in 2021 through the end of 2023. But the program faces strong opposition and a slew of misleading claims from teachers unions and organizations with ties to teachers unions.

Lawmakers are on the hook this fall to decide between special interests and the interests of thousands of low-income students who rely on these scholarships. The Illinois General Assembly has one more chance to save the Invest in Kids program during its veto session starting Oct. 24. Contact your state lawmaker and ask where they stand on Invest in Kids scholarships for low-income families.

What does it cost taxpayers?

The program itself is funded through donations from private individuals and businesses. The state doesn't directly fund the program.

The state did allow nearly $57 million in tax credits for the scholarships awarded to low-income students in the 2022-2023 school year. While the state is not directly funding the program, it is not bringing in the same amount of revenue because of the tax credits.

Yet the amount of foregone revenue equals about $5,900 per scholarship recipient. On the other hand, the average operational spending per pupil in Illinois public schools is nearly $18,000.

That means the state 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, the state 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?

Opponents claiming the program takes away funding from public education are misinterpreting the program. The program diverts no funding from public education.

None of the tax credits for the program divert money from 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?

Despite overwhelming public support for the Invest in Kids program, that’s not what the powerful teachers unions want. For one, it’s an admission of failure. Students fleeing Chicago Public Schools and other public schools means parents don’t want what teachers unions are peddling. Chicago teachers also want better for their own children: nearly 40% send their kids to private schools, including the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Stacy Davis Gates.

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 other options. When parents have options other than public school, that power is undermined.

Is private education better than a public education?

The value of the Invest in Kids scholarship is giving low-income parents autonomy over their child’s education. Most low-income families have no options beyond their neighborhood public schools. But for a multitude of reasons – from crowding to bullying to academic achievement and offerings – many families have decided their local public school cannot serve their child’s needs and have sought alternatives.

“We struggled with public schools; the curriculums and most schools not having the resources that the arts can bring to children,” Symara Moses, of Chicago, said. Her daughter, Cortney, attends The Chicago Academy for the Arts thanks to an Invest in Kids scholarship. “Her being able to attend the academy has been life changing and I see her growth every single week. Something new that she’s learning, something that she’s picking up from faculty, staff, other students and just her confidence.”

“If the scholarship sunsets this year, she would not be able to return to the academy,” Moses said. “We just would not be able to cover that amount of tuition and she would have to switch schools.”

CTU President Davis Gates made a similar decision for her family by enrolling her child in a private school for the extracurricular and academic opportunities that school provides. But with an annual income topping $289,000, Davis Gates can afford to have a choice. Those receiving the scholarships she wants to kill will be left without one.

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.

The school Davis Gates sends her child to is part of the Archdiocese of Chicago school system. Eleven students attend her child’s school on Invest in Kids scholarships. If lawmakers fail to extend the program, those students may be forced to leave their school and go into the system Davis Gates rejected for her own child.

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