Even for an often-neglected population, the Illinois legislature’s recent indifference toward its own citizens seemed callous to the point of being cruel. The state’s lawmakers allowed a program that provides scholarships to low-income students to expire without so much as a vote.
The program, Invest in Kids, which began in 2017, provided nearly 10,000 students this year with scholarships to attend the school that best meets their needs. Invest in Kids provides tax credits to individuals or businesses who donate funds to organizations that fund scholarships for children in need. During its short history, the program has proven wildly popular. While state law caps total spending on Invest in Kids tax credits at $75 million, the program has seen far more demand than that. In the last academic year, Empower Illinois, the largest scholarship-awarding organization, awarded more than 7,000 scholarships — but had nearly 32,000 students apply for funds. As a result, this one organization had to turn away nearly 25,000 deserving students who applied for scholarships. Why would a state allow such a popular program, where demand far exceeds supply, to expire?
It isn’t because state funds are going to wealthy households. According to Illinois law, families must have an income below 300% of the federal poverty level, or just under $75,000 for a family of three in 2023, to qualify for the program. Most scholarships go to families with incomes well below the 300% threshold.
And the Invest in Kids program doesn’t deprive public schools of funding, either. The taxpayer funding provided to Invest in Kids scholarship recipients comes to less than one-third of the average cost to educate a child in Illinois schools, meaning that the program actually saves public schools money. Moreover, state funding on K-12 education has increased by nearly $2 billion since the Invest in Kids program began, even as public school enrollment continues to decline.
At a time of immense partisanship, Invest in Kids represents one of the few policies Illinois residents of all political stripes support, according to survey research by the Illinois Policy Institute. More than 60% of Republicans, Democrats, and independents approve of the program, with opposition only around 20%. Political support rises even higher among African American and Hispanic residents — perhaps unsurprising, given that over half of Empower Illinois’s scholarship recipients come from these populations.
Illinois policymakers can’t object to Invest in Kids because they don’t believe in private education — quite the contrary. Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) sends his children to private school, as does the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, Stacy Davis Gates. In fact, 39% of Chicago public school teachers send their own children to private schools.
Instead of representing a principled stand on the education low-income Illinois families should receive, the legislature’s failure to renew the Invest in Kids program represents the worst kind of political opportunism. Democratic lawmakers let a program to rescue needy children from failing schools expire simply because their teachers union paymasters, who require a captive audience to retain their jobs, demanded it. But Illinois residents should demand better from their lawmakers than playing politics with children, and children from vulnerable families at that. With only about one-third (35.4%) of schoolchildren meeting state standards in English, and even fewer (27.1%) meeting state standards in math, Illinois students have far too much at stake to spend their childhood stuck in failing schools. Especially when it’s simply because lawmakers do not have the courage to stand up to the teachers unions.
After months of cowardice evidenced by ducking a vote, the Illinois legislature should do the right thing and extend, not to mention expand, the Invest in Kids program. If Pritzker thinks private education provides the best outcome for his children, then he should let any Illinois child, not just those lucky enough to have billionaire parents, make the same choice.