Under Threat of Closure, Illinois Lawmakers Try to Save Private School Scholarship Program

elementary classroom students
An elementGetty Images

With Illinois’ popular private school scholarship program under threat of being scaled back, a number of Illinois lawmakers want a resolution asking Gov. J.B. Pritzker to let it continue.

House Resolution 169 urges support for the Invest in Kids private school scholarship program. In the resolution, the lawmakers ask Pritzker "to allow the Invest in Kids Act to be in full effect for the five years of the pilot program as intended by this General Assembly upon passage of the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act."

It also calls on Illinois’ congressional delegation to approve of the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act, a federal program similar to the state's Invest in Kids program, which provides tax breaks. The scholarship program is funded by private donors who get a 75 cents-on-the-dollar tax credit via the Illinois Department of Revenue.

In its first year, Illinoisans donated $61 million to sponsor the private school tuition of students in exchange for a state tax credit. Freshman Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed to phase it out over the next three years. He said in his budget proposal that it would put about $6 million into state coffers next year.

State Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, said Democrats should honor the bargain they struck when lawmakers reformed Illinois’ school funding formula.

"There have been some recent reports that it is really assisting a group of people that really need assistance," he said. "The new governor wants to change that deal but I would like to see him fulfill their end of the bargain."

A report released by Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization, found the majority of the 5,459 students that received scholarships were non-white minority students who attended 401 different schools across Illinois. The recipient's family’s average income was $35,371, or 148 percent of the poverty level. And the average scholarship received was $6,669, about the full cost of the average tuition. Of the 1,988 donors, the most common donation amount was $1,000. Eleven donors gave the maximum amount of $1.3 million, an amount responsible for sending about 200 kids to private schools of their choice at little-to-no cost to the family.

As of Monday, the program had raised $21.7 million for the next semester.

"Thanks to the Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship program, over $61 million of additional, private funds were infused in our education system last year – a record for a first-year program of this kind. These scholarships have given thousands of under-served Illinois children the opportunity to receive an education that best fits their needs. In the first year alone, SGOs awarded over 7,000 scholarships across the state, making a significant impact on Illinois education," Empower Illinois said in a statement.

"This five-year pilot program was created with bipartisan support, and we look forward to continuing our work with lawmakers and community partners who already recognize the importance of the Tax Credit Scholarship program. Ending the program prematurely would leave thousands of families extremely vulnerable. The 41,000 children who applied this year deserve the chance at a life-changing scholarship and the opportunity to receive the education that best fits their needs, regardless of their ZIP Code or family income."