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Illinois’ low-income scholarship program should be saved

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, April 7, 2021  |  Commentary  |  Tom Demmer

Education Funding (36a) , Legislature (56)

In 2017, Illinois legislators came together to pass and enact a sweeping, bipartisan education funding overhaul. A key component of that legislation was Invest in Kids, a donor-funded scholarship program established to create opportunity for kids from lower-income families. Now, despite its overwhelming success and the positive impact it has had on the lives of thousands of students, this landmark program is in jeopardy.

The mission of Invest in Kids is personal to me. My hometown of Dixon had good schools, both public and private. And while my father was a public schoolteacher, my parents chose to send my three siblings and me to Catholic schools. Paying tuition for four kids, even with parish discounts, wasn’t easy for my family, and both my parents took on extra work to help us afford it. When I was in eighth grade, my father passed away from cancer, and tuition for my sister and me was no longer something my family could afford.

In addition to the heartbreak of losing a parent, we also faced the prospect of changing schools, and leaving our friends and familiar routine behind. Thankfully, a local business owner knew my family’s situation and covered tuition costs so my sister and I could stay in our school.

I believe parents and students throughout Illinois should have the same opportunity for school choice, and that a family’s income — or unexpected life events — shouldn’t mean they lose that opportunity.

The idea behind Invest in Kids is simple. The program offers a 75% income tax credit to individuals and businesses that donate to a qualified scholarship-granting organization. Then, the SGOs grant full or partial scholarships to students who wouldn’t normally be able to afford private school tuition. It’s an efficient system that encourages taxpayers to donate and gives low-income families more choices about where to send their children to school.

Since its inception, Invest in Kids has made it possible for thousands of Illinois elementary and high school students to attend private schools. For every student who has received a scholarship, there are many more waiting in line, hoping to have that opportunity. When Empower Illinois, one of the state’s SGOs, opened scholarship applications for the 2020-21 school year, it received nearly 25,000 student applications in less than 36 hours.

While the demand for this program remains high, its future is in question. Before he ever took office, then-candidate J.B. Pritzker campaigned on rolling back Invest in Kids. It’s hard to understand his push to kill off a scholarship program that has helped thousands of students, including many from historically disadvantaged communities.

As part of his budget address in January, Pritzker proposed slashing the 75% tax credit to 40%, essentially phasing it out. Pritzker included the program on a list of so-called corporate loopholes he proposed eliminating — an insult to the thousands of children whose lives have been changed by Invest in Kids. Pritzker has never had to question if he could afford to send his children to private school, but thousands of Illinois families ask themselves that question every year.

We must do everything we can to advocate for the students who depend on this critical program. Because of Invest in Kids, many more parents throughout Illinois have a choice about how to educate their children. Because of Invest in Kids, thousands of kids can attend the school that’s right for them. We cannot let Gov. Pritzker slam shut the door of opportunity for Illinois families.

Tom Demmer is a Republican member of the Illinois House of Representatives representing the 90th District.