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To give parents options, Illinois lawmakers should preserve tax credit scholarship program

Two years of pandemic-battered education have proven the need for access to a variety of different learning options, including private schools.

The Illinois Legislature.
The Illinois Legislature in 2017 approved a tax credit for contributions made to a scholarship program that supports private schools. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed reducing the credit.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP

Tracy Smith is a substitute teacher with Chicago Public Schools and a single mother raising her twin sons in Hyde Park. When her mom became seriously ill several years ago, Tracy threw herself into caring for her ailing parent.

But the financial strain of her mother’s intensive care set the family back and threatened Tracy’s ability to keep her sons at St. Sabina, a Catholic school in the city where her sons were thriving academically. They were gaining exposure to curriculum and opportunities such as art, music and Boy Scouts that Tracy knew they wouldn’t get at their local public school.

Every child deserves access to an education that works for them.

A state scholarship program, passed under the Invest in Kids Act, provides just that for students and families in need. Invest in Kids rescued Tracy and her boys when they received tuition assistance through the tax credit scholarship program. That money allowed them to stay at their beloved school even through a financial hardship.

Tracy’s sons are among thousands of kids in Illinois who have benefited from the tax credit scholarship program. Another 26,000 kids were on the waitlist as of May, according to Empower Illinois, hoping for a shot at a life-changing opportunity.

Providing access amid the pandemic

Two years of pandemic-battered education have proven the need for access to a variety of different learning options. Grim outcomes can result when kids are locked out of classrooms, missing out on time with beloved teachers and friends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a study that found just 1 in 10 Illinois public school students had access to full-time in-person learning for the first eight months of the 2020-2021 school year. Illinois ranked among the worst in the nation for offering students access to full-time, in-person learning between September 2020 and April 2021, less than any other Midwestern state.

All those absences led to damaged academic achievement. Earlier this month, the Illinois State Board of Education released district-level testing data showing declines in proficiency — and 30% of Illinois students didn’t even take the test.

Private schools were among the only places in the state where kids had access to full-time, in-person learning during the 2020-2021 school year. Yet Gov. J.B. Pritzker tried to punish them and the low-income families they serve by targeting the tax credit scholarship program for cuts last budget season.

Pritzker called it a “tax loophole” that needed closing, an odd description for a program in which the average annual household income of participants is $38,000 and nearly half of participating students are Black or Hispanic, according to data on the scholarship families who work with Empower Illinois.

Thankfully, that program survived without cuts and state lawmakers gave it an extra year of life. But it’s still set to sunset — meaning, disappear — at the end of 2023, leaving many kids and parents uncertain about their futures.

Opponents of the program do not think tax dollars should be directed to private schools, but a large segment of the public supports flexibility. A June poll from RealClear Opinion Research showed 74% of registered voters — including 70% of Democrats — support giving parents and kids access to education options. Previous legislation has showed extreme bipartisan support for the tax credit scholarship program.

“I always say, we pay property taxes, but we don’t attend the schools in our district and that’s kind of unfair because I believe our money should go to wherever our kids go,” said Bose Clodfelter, a mother of two in Joliet.

Her sons both benefitted from Illinois’ tax credit scholarship program. It got her older son away from bullying at the public schools.

“We are investing in our children’s education, and that money should be allocated where we choose for them to get the education that we would like for them to receive,” she said.

Parents have learned the importance of being actively involved in their kids’ educations during the past couple of years. They’re open to alternatives, whatever it takes to give their children the best educations possible.

Illinois politicians kicked off their legislative session last Wednesday and should make sure they deliver on giving parents and kids what they want and deserve. Invest in Kids equalizes access to good schools, regardless of income or ZIP code. It’s a program worth preserving.

Hilary Gowins is vice president of communication at the Illinois Policy Institute.

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