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

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Tracy Smith is a substitute teacher in Chicago public schools and a single mother raising twin sons in Hyde Park. When her mother fell seriously ill several years ago, Tracy devoted herself to caring for her sick relative.

But financial pressure from her mother’s intensive care set the family back and threatened Tracy’s ability to babysit her sons at St. Sabina, a Catholic school in town where her sons were academically successful. They were exposed to the program and opportunities such as art, music and Boy Scouts that Tracy knew they wouldn’t have 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, offers just that to students and families in need. Investing in Kids saved Tracy and her boys when they received tuition assistance through the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This money allowed them to stay in their beloved school even in times of financial hardship.

Tracy’s sons are among thousands of Illinois children who have benefited from the Tax Credit Scholarship Program. Another 26,000 children were on the waiting list in May, according to Empower Illinois, in hopes of seizing a life-changing opportunity.

Provide access in the midst of the pandemic

Two years of education in the grip of a pandemic have proven the need for access to a variety of different learning options. Grim results can arise when children are excluded from classrooms, lacking time with their teachers and beloved friends.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study that found that only 1 in 10 Illinois public school students had access to full-time in-person learning during the first eight months of the 2020-2021 school year. . Illinois ranked among the worst in the country for providing students with access to full-time in-person learning between September 2020 and April 2021, less than any other state in the Midwest.

All these absences led to damaged school results. Earlier this month, the Illinois State Board of Education released district-level test data showing declining skills – and 30% of Illinois students didn’t even take the test.

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

Pritzker called it a “tax loophole” that needed to be closed, a bizarre description for a program in which participants’ average annual income is $ 38,000 and nearly half of participating students are black or Hispanic, data shows on scholarship families working with Empower Illinois.

Fortunately, this program has survived without cuts, and state lawmakers have given it an extra year of life. But it’s still set for sunset – that is, disappearing – at the end of 2023, leaving many children and parents unsure of their future.

Opponents of the program don’t think taxpayer dollars should go to private schools, but much of the public favors the flexibility. A June poll by RealClear Opinion Research showed that 74% of registered voters – including 70% of Democrats – support parents and children ‘s access to education options. Previous legislation has shown extreme bipartisan support for the tax credit scholarship program.

“I always say we pay property taxes, but we don’t go to schools in our district and it’s a little unfair because I think our money should go where our kids go,” said Bose Clodfelter, mother. of two children in Joliet. .

Her sons have both benefited from the Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship Program. It kept her older son away from bullying in public schools.

“We invest in the education of our children, and this money should be allocated where we choose it so that they receive the education that we would like them to receive,” she said.

Parents have learned the importance of being actively involved in their children’s education over the past two years. They are open to alternatives, whatever it takes to give their children the best possible education.

Illinois politicians kicked off their legislative session last Wednesday and should make sure they give parents and children what they want and deserve. Invest in Kids equates access to great schools regardless of income or zip code. It is a program that deserves to be preserved.

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

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