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Under threat, private school scholarship program touts successes

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Monday, March 4, 2019  |  Article  |  By Cole Lauterbach

Education reform (38) , Education--Elementary and Secondary (36) , Governor (44)
Illinois' private school scholarship program put thousands of low-income students in private schools of their choice largely at no cost to the families in its first year, according to a new report released as Gov. J.B. Pritzker looks to phase the program out.

Rockford native Javier Argumedo got his GED and now works as a quality assurance officer at a local factory. The single dad has sole responsibility for sending his 14-year-old daughter, Mariana, to school. He was elated when he found out his daughter would get full tuition to Boylan Catholic High School in Rockford through the Invest in Kids private school scholarship program.

“It was like winning the lottery,” he said. “I want her to get the best education and I knew Boylan could offer that.”

A freshman, Mariana Argumedo says she wants to study medicine. She said she likes the teachers and smaller classes at Boylan.

“It was a better experience because I learn more and I wasn’t as distracted,” she said. “I love it there.”

The Invest in Kids program, enacted into law in 2017 as part of negotiations in overhauling Illinois’ school funding formula, saw what school choice advocates call the largest response of a private school scholarship in the nation. More than 30,000 kids applied for the scholarships, a rush that crashed the online portal within minutes of it opening.

Loves Park resident Trisha Field, whose son Isaac is enrolled at Boylan with partial-tuition assistance from donors and has another son in community college, called the program a life-saver.

“It makes it affordable,” she said. “It made it real for us to be able to put him in private school.”

Isaac is entertaining the idea of playing soccer in college, but wants to focus on a career in criminal justice. He wants to graduate from Boylan.

“The teachers seem to care more about the students’ success,” he said.

The scholarship program is funded by private donors that receive a 75 cents-on-the-dollar tax credit via the Illinois Department of Revenue. Some $61 million was donated in the first year.

Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization, released a report on its first year that 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.

“What this report shows is clear, compelling, unmistakable demand for these scholarships,” Empower Illinois Executive Director Anthony Holter said. “Every-day taxpaying Illinoisans value this program.”