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Illinois school choice program sees "historic" rush, crashes servers

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Tuesday, February 13, 2018  |  Article  |  By Cole Lauterbach

Education--Elementary and Secondary (36)
In a matter of seconds, more than 24,000 children applied for Illinois’ Invest in Kids private school scholarship program on Jan. 31. The rush crashed servers for the state’s largest facilitator of the tuition aid.

The program provides between 50 to 100 percent tuition assistance for kids attending private schools in the state. They’re paid for by donations giving a 75 percent deduction on state taxes.
The director of the largest provider, Empower Illinois, calls it the one of the biggest one-day starts in U.S. History.

“It shows that this program is extremely strong,” Myles Mendoza, calling the rush a testament to the need for better choices in Illinois education.

As of Monday, more than $45 million has been pledged for the program through the Illinois Department of Revenue.

Mendoza said one grandparent went to extraordinary lengths to make sure her child had a chance to get tuition assistance.

“We heard about a grandmother who missed their chemo treatments because they wanted to get their [grand]child a scholarship,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking that we put that kind of pain on somebody ... and at the same time it’s unbelievable the kind of lengths people were going to in order to get a chance at this education.”

The rush is now on for Mendoza and his team to get their portal back open so that the thousands that weren’t able to apply have just as much chance as those who did get signed up.

“We’re trying to work on a way that’s more fair and balanced that doesn’t provide the same kind of pressure dynamics,” he said. “...because so many people now know, we have to be ready for more traffic.”

Empower’s Facebook page was inundated with a combination of well-wishers hopeful that they’ll get the chance to send their kids to a different school and parents frustrated with the crash.
“I feel that none of the applications from yesterday should be viewed or considered because at 12 noon, the site had crashed already,” said Ashanti Stanley.

“...please continue to offer this to IL families who work very hard and choose to send their children to private schools just to have none of their tax dollars go directly to their current school,” said Nicole Blodgett of Pana.

To comply with state law, Empower had to award one scholarship.

The second largest in regards to fund raised through the program, the Big Shoulders Fund, was up and running with their program for all of 40 hours before they saw more than 12,000 applications, far more than they would be able to grant with their available $7.2 million.

Critics of the program say it saps money from public schools, not only through the tax credits from the donations but [the loss of revenue from schools losing students.] State Senate Democrats are ready to vote on a bill that would essentially shut down the program until the state meets its new funding level set in the school funding reform bill last fall.

At hearings last week, the president of the Illinois State Board of Education said it would take an additional $7 billion to reach those levels, almost double what schools currently receive. That funding increase was called "completely impossible under the economic conditions that exist in our state" by state Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington. That means the bill advanced by state Senate Democrats would almost certainly kill the Invest in Kids program.

Empower will announce the re-opening of the applications a week before they’re available.