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    Families should have the ability to choose an excellent education for their children no matter where they live or their level of income. For this reason, it is my hope that the Illinois General Assembly extends the Tax Credit Scholarship Program as they continue to see the impact of this program for deserving children and families.

    The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, made possible by the Illinois Invest in Kids Act, provides need-based scholarships to Illinois K-12 students and their families to attend the non-public school of their choice. Without this program, many hardworking families may not have the ability to select their best fit school due to financial constraints.

    The program is currently slated to sunset at the end of 2023. The need for the Illinois legislature to extend this deadline is not an issue for organizations, schools, or the affluent. It is about hard working children and families – hundreds of thousands across the state in under-resourced and under-represented communities – who are participating in this program, have participated in this program, or who are on waiting lists – who want to be sure their child is in the best-fit school to realize pathways toward brighter futures. The time is now and action must be taken by the legislature before their current session ends on May 19.

    This scholarship program has helped deserving students and families across the state, and eliminating it will take away a critical component of helping students to access a high-quality education. Since the Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship Program began in 2017, hundreds of thousands of students have applied for scholarships statewide. Thousands of students receive scholarships each year, helping families make the best education decision for their children.

    As a Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO) approved by the state to facilitate donations and the distribution of scholarships, Big Shoulders Fund awarded more than 2,000 Tax Credit Scholarships totaling over $19.4 million last year and there are approximately 10,000 children on our waiting list. Since the program began, Big Shoulders Fund has awarded over $72 million in Tax Credit Scholarships. All of this indicates that strong interest remains in this program among eligible parents/guardians – those who are at 300% of the federal poverty level or below. These most vulnerable children and families are telling us this is a critical program, and I hope our legislators hear their voices.

    While some have wondered or expressed concern that this program is diverting money from Illinois’ public schools, thankfully, that simply is not the case. Tax credits have no adverse impact on Illinois’ K-12 education spending and districts are held harmless if a public school student is awarded a scholarship. In fact, since the inception of the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, public school funding has increased every year in Illinois, particularly in Chicago. We applaud this increased investment in public education and encourage more. Coupled with the Tax Credit Scholarship Program, we see a stronger landscape of education, particularly for the most deserving of this increased investment.

    Our collective effort is focused on providing opportunities to children. We are driven by the belief that low-income families should have the same level of educational choices as those with more financial means. We can secure the future of this critical resource for families by getting this program extended.

    Legislators, please be heroes for these kids. I urge you to extend the Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

    Joshua Hale is the President & CEO of Big Shoulders Fund, which serves nearly 20,000 Chicago-area students annually, the majority of whom come from low-income households.

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    • Ann Courter
      commented 2023-05-18 14:48:37 -0500
      The weakness of Joshua Hale’s argument in this guest commentary can be assessed by its reliance
      on half-truths, misstatements of facts, and false assumptions.

      1. The program is NOT currently slated to sunset at the end of 2023.
      In fact, the sunset date in the law is a year later, on January 1, 2025. Donations eligible for tax credits
      can be made until Dec 31, 2023. Scholarships can continue to be handed out for the entire 2023-24
      school year. To estimate the impact on tax revenues for FY24, the maximum loss would be $75 million,
      assuming donors make their tax-advantaged donations between July 1 and December 31, 2023.
      Emergency action is NOT needed this week to clarify the picture either for FY24 state revenues or for
      students and schools for the 2023-24 school year. 

      2. The program is NOT about hundreds of thousands of hard-working children and families.  
      There are just 9656 scholarship recipients this year across the whole state.  The biggest beneficiaries of
      this tax credit program are the 478 private schools that receive the scholarship funds, the scholarship
      granting organizations like the Big Shoulders Fund that keep 5% of the donations, and the affluent
      donors who get a generous tax credit to reduce their state income tax bill.  Almost all of the private
      schools in the program provide religious instruction and are able to discriminate against the hundreds of
      thousands of Illinois children with disabilities, who are also hard-working.  

      3.  The program excludes many “deserving” students and families.
      What about the children who are excluded from many religious private schools because of LGBTQ
      parents, or disabilities?  Are they not also “deserving”? Fortunately, public schools offer a good
      education to all students.  And state laws and the state constitution protect all students in public schools
      from discrimination. The solution to inadequately funded public schools is not to divert additional
      dollars to a handful of private schools, but to focus every available dollar on public schools and their
      students, so that every child has an opportunity to attend good local public schools, no matter their zip
      code. Public schools do a remarkable job of teaching all Illinois children who come to them, including
      those who are English language learners, or who have special education needs. Public schools offer a
      well-rounded curriculum and are governed by elected boards with transparency and accountability in
      their use of public funds.

      4. Tax credits DO have an adverse impact on Illinois K-12 education spending.  
      By diverting up to $75 million of public revenues into tax credits for wealthy donors, year after year, this
      program does indeed impair the state’s ability to fund not only public schools, but also the state
      programs that support the health and brain development of children from birth through their school
      years, like maternal health, early intervention, and health care.  And as our neighboring states have
      seen, the pressure to offer vouchers or tax credits to more and more, and eventually all students is likely
      continue to ratchet up.  This program needs to be ended before our public schools are irreparably

      5. Is the program “working”? The public has not seen disclosure of how many students receiving IIK scholarships were already enrolled in a private school, how many were already receiving privately funded scholarships without the IIK program, or how many students have dropped out of the program when they found the private school not to be a welcoming environment. We don’t know anything about how the selected students are doing, despite the IIK Act’s requirement for a study of this, nor do we know how their home schools were affected by students leaving and maybe coming back mid-year. We have heard that many students were discouraged from even applying because their learning needs could not be supported by the private school. The program is certainly succeeding in enriching the SGOs and bolstering private school enrollments. But their enrichment is not a public purpose deserving our state revenues while public schools are still so greatly underfunded.

      Rather than begging for a share of our scarce and precious public dollars, the Big Shoulders Fund and the
      private schools should utilize their many other options to make their schools more accessible to middle-
      income and low-income families.  Wealthy donors can afford to pay the full amount of state taxes they
      owe, especially since they can take a federal charitable deduction for donations to the schools of their

      The legislature should stand up for the 1.8 million students in public schools in Illinois, and let the Invest in Kids scheme sunset.

      Ann Courter is a former public school board president, a retired lawyer, and an advocate for good public policy.
    • Joshua Hale
      published this page in Guest Commentary 2023-05-10 22:29:20 -0500