Gov. J.B. Pritzker is encouraging the Illinois General Assembly to end the Invest in Kids Program, a tax-credit scholarship (TCS) program for low- and middle-income children.
Enacted in 2017, the Invest in Kids Program is open to families with household income levels below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. Currently, roughly 52 percent of Illinois families are eligible for the program, which has a budget cap of $75 million.
Pritzker’s plan would lower the program’s budget cap to $50 million in the current fiscal year and then gradually phase the program out entirely over the next three fiscal years.
The main scholarship-granting organization for the program, Invest in Kids, raised $61 million from nearly 2,000 individual donors in 2018, according to a report from Empower Illinois. In its first year, more than 5,400 scholarships were awarded, with an average scholarship amount around $6,700.
Almost three-quarters of all scholarships granted, 74 percent, went to families with household incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which is approximately $46,000 for a family of four. The average income for a recipient family was $35,371, or 148 percent of the federal poverty level. Black and Hispanic children made up 52 percent of scholarship grantees.
The median donation was around $4,000, with $1,000 being the most common donation. A little more than half, 53 percent, of these donations stayed within local communities. There were more than 32,000 student applications for the program in 2018, and Empower Illinois estimates it would have cost only $216 million to award scholarships to all applicants.
Currently, with 23 different programs in 18 states and more than 1.2 million scholarships granted, TCS programs are the most popular form of private school choice in the nation. TCS programs provide several education benefits to participating students while doing so at a lower cost than public schools. A study released in October 2016 by EdChoice “estimates the fiscal effects” of 10 of the nation’s 23 TCS programs (comprising 93 percent of all awarded TCS scholarships). The study found TCS programs have saved “state governments, state and local taxpayers, and school districts” from $1.7 billion to $3.4 billion through 2014. In other words, TCS programs saved anywhere from $1,750 to $3,000 per student. The savings in the 2013–14 school year alone (the last year available for study) ranged from $320 million to $580 million.
A 2019 study from the Urban Institute, expanding on previous research of Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program—the country’s largest TCS program—found participating students are 99 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year college and 56 percent more likely to graduate college than their public school peers.
Copious other empirical research on TCS programs and other school choice initiatives shows these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances. Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively. Furthermore, TCS programs benefit public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices.
Students at private schools are also less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.
The Invest in Kids Program is already providing a better and more enriching education environment for thousands of low-income Illinois children. Legislators should reject the call to phase out the program. Instead, Illinois lawmakers ought to increase its budget cap and make it permanent. By doing so, they would ensure all Illinois children have the opportunity to attend the school that best fits their unique educational needs.
The following documents provide more information about tax-credit scholarship programs and parental choice in education.
Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in moving their child from an unsafe school. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately move their child to a safe school— private, parochial, or public— as soon as parents feel the school their child is currently attending is too dangerous for their child’s physical or emotional health.