• Ben Szalinski
    OCT 20, 2023


    Supporters of Invest in Kids scholarship make new proposal hoping to get more support from lawmakers

    Parents and students wearing blue t-shirts supporting the Invest in Kids scholarship program lobby lawmakers in the Capitol in May. [Ben Szalinski/The Daily Line]

    The General Assembly could consider a plan during veto session to continue the tax credit that drives the Invest in Kids scholarship program as advocates propose a plan they hope will get more lawmakers on board.  

    The Invest in Kids scholarship program was established in 2017 to provide financial assistance to low- to middle-income families who want to send their children to private schools. The program is popular with a generally conservative crowd that pushes to give parents more flexibility choosing where they send their kids to school but is unpopular with teachers unions and others who want the government to focus more on increasing funding public schools.    

    Illinois’ program is additionally controversial because donors to Invest in Kids scholarship programs receive a 75 percent tax credit on their contribution. State law allows the state to give out as much as $75 million of tax credits for donations each year. While the program is not set to expire in Fiscal Year 2024, the tax credit is set to sunset at the end of December. If lawmakers don’t extend the sunset date, donations to the program won’t be eligible for the 75 percent tax credit, which supporters worry will cause less people to contribute to the program.  

    “Families should have the ability to choose the right school, especially those from low-income communities of color, which offer a robust education with excellent programs and extracurricular activities that too many students of color don’t always have access to," Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina on Chicago’s South Side, said in a news release last month.  

    With the deadline for lawmakers to act quickly approaching, advocates are making a new pitch to lawmakers to make adjustments to the law in hopes of getting more support. According to a memo of draft legislation obtained by The Daily Line, supporters of the program are proposing to extend the tax credit for five more years through 2028 and reduce the cap on the program to $50 million instead of $75 million.  

    The proposal also creates “Disproportionately Impacted Areas Serving Schools,” which would be an area defined as a “disproportionately impacted area” by the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity where donations would exclusively support students living in that area. Contributions to this designated area would receive a 65 percent credit, which supporters say is designed to “incentivize increased contributions to and scholarships for students” living in the area.  

    The proposal also changes how much can be awarded in tax credits. All contributions up to $5,000 would receive a 100 percent credit, up from 75 percent. All contributions above $5,000 would receive a 55 percent credit, down from 75 percent. A single taxpayer would only be able to claim $500,000 worth of credits, down from $1 million. And the portion of the contributions that don’t receive a state tax credit would be eligible for a federal credit.  

    “Our proposed amendment to the Invest in Kids Act will lessen the state’s liability for TCS tax credits while also attracting more low- and middle-income donors by incentivizing smaller donations,” Empower Illinois President Anthony Holter said in a statement. “We believe these new ideas contain great potential to improve the program and encourage its extension for another five years.” 

    The program itself is still opposed by organizations advocating for more funding for public schools and teachers’ unions. Illinois Education Association President Al Llorens released a statement saying the new proposal is a “scheme” that demonstrates the program has only helped white students, even though supporters have billed it as a way to help students of color in low-income communities attend better schools.  

    “It’s a flawed program and it puts the state into a precarious position of funding private schools while continuing to underfund 80 percent of public schools,” Llorens said.  

    Though the teachers’ unions are opposed to the program, supporters felt a renewed sense of momentum early this year when it was reported Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates, who has adamantly opposed private schools, sends her son to a private school.  

    “If the teachers union leader who wants to kill school choice has made the private school choice for her own child, how convincing are her arguments against school choice for low-income children with few options for breaking the cycle of generational poverty?” the Illinois Policy Institute wrote.  

    Supporters say the program has support from voters. According to a polling memo obtained by The Daily Line, 56 percent of voters support the program while 25 percent oppose it. It also showed positive support among each demographic group and all regions of the state. The poll was conducted in August of 600 Illinois voters through a text and email campaign by Impact Research.  

    Gov. JB Pritzker has suggested his own changes to the program. At a June news conference, Pritzker suggested the credit for the contributions be more closely aligned to the federal tax credit which is around 40 percent. But he put the final decision into lawmakers’ hands.  

    “I have said all along that if that’s what happens, I will sign that bill,” Pritzker said. “If they decide not to, that’s also up to the General Assembly at this point.”    

    Many Republicans support the program. The program’s extension not being included in the budget led Senate Republicans to vote against the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, though they largely praised the budget overall. Senate Minority Leader John Curran (R-Downers Grove) said in a statement last month his caucus is “united” in support of the extension.  

    “The innocent children receiving these life-changing scholarships, and the thousands more on the waitlist, should not be caught in the middle of political or ideological fights, but instead should be given the certainty of a permanent program so they can continue to excel in their family’s school of choice,” Curran said.  

    Among House Republicans, 32 of the 40 members signed a letter in May in support of the scholarship program. A spokesperson for House Minority Leader Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) said the leader supports the program and wants to see lawmakers give certainty to families.  

    House Speaker Chris Welch (D-Hillside) is letting his caucus decide. While Republicans who support the program have been outspoken about it, most Democrats have remained tight-lipped on where they stand.  

    “The Speaker is going to follow the will of the caucus on this issue,” Welch spokesperson Jaclyn Driscoll said in an email to The Daily Line. “The most recent proposal still needs to be discussed with the entire caucus.”  

    A spokesperson for Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said discussions on the issue are still continuing.  

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