Illinois parents push to extend statewide school choice program

(The Center Square) – Parents of students from across the state involved with the state’s Invest In Kids school choice pilot program are lobbying Illinois lawmakers to make it permanent.

The program allows donors to get a 75% income tax credit toward donations to fund school choice scholarships for qualified families throughout the state. Scholarship Granting Organizations are approved to administer the program, which is set to sunset Jan. 1, 2024. As lawmakers return, parents are looking for an extension.

Eric Ruiz of Joliet, a parent with students attending a private school involved in the program, explained his goal of coming to Springfield.

“We are hoping to get rid of the sunset date and make this a permanent thing,” Ruiz said. “We do not know what the future holds, so I would like my kids to remain there.”

Trip Rodgers, superintendent for Lutheran Schools in central Illinois, said that students who usually would not get a chance at private school can with the program.

“Over the last couple of years, we have seen an increase in the number of students who can attend our school,” Rodgers said. “Many of these students in the past would not have been able to do it financially.”

Anthony Holter, president of the scholarship granting organization Empower Illinois, said 100% of the scholarships are based on need, with 70% of recipients having the most financial need.

“The average household income is $43,000, and these families are receiving scholarships, again, to attend their best fit private schools in every community in the state and every legislative district,” Holter told the Illinois House Revenue and Finance Committee in October.

Opponents of the measure say the tax credit to fund the school choice program with private donations takes resources away from the state’s public schools.  Cynthia Riseman Lund, who represented the state’s public schools teachers’ unions, expressed her opposition to the program during a House Revenue and Finance Committee meeting last month.

“[The teachers’ unions] support elimination of the Invest In Kids program. It is set to sunset … and we will call for the elimination of the program even sooner,” Lund said.

Empower Illinois said since 2018, the program has awarded 37,000 scholarships totaling more than $280 million.

Greg Bishop contributed to this report. 

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