The state of Illinois has initiated a program, called Invest in Kids, to help students pay for private school. The program offers state tax credits for donations that give thousands of students tuition assistance for the school year.
Donors to the program receive a 75% state tax credit while the program helps a total of almost 5,600 students. Empower Illinois is one of the organizations that distributes the donations. According to their Executive Director, Anthony Holter, the students apply because their local public school is not their ideal choice. When accepted by the program, the students get to attend the private school of their choosing.
Still in its first year, the program was signed into law last fall as part of sweeping school funding reform legislation in Illinois. The program has a limit of $100 million in donations, but as of January it had only brought in $44 million. According to Empower Illinois, this considerable sum is far outweighed by the demand for tuition assistance, as over 30,000 students are still waiting for aid.
Holter says that even if the donations hit the $100 million limit, it would not be enough money to help every student who applied for a grant. In an effort to meet the incredible demand, Empower Illinois has hired more fundraisers. The program is set to expire in 2024, but until then any money donated before the end of the calendar year would go to a student for that entire school year.
Democrats in Illinois have criticized the program, arguing that it uses state money that should go to public schools. Out of all schools in the United States, only 25% are private schools. Politicians like Democrat J.B. Pritzker is using this disparity in Illinois’s upcoming gubernatorial race, saying he will end the private school-focused program to direct funds to public schools.
According to a report released by the Education Trust, Illinois has a troubling funding gap when it comes to public schools. In fact, Illinois has the most dramatic gap in the nation between the poorest school districts and those on the wealthier side. The poorest districts received less than 22% in state and local funding than the districts with the lowest poverty rates.
When school funding is lacking in certain districts, it also means that they lack resources such as advanced course offerings, school counselors, high-quality teachers, and early education programs. These resources are necessary in creating a school that has high graduation rates and graduates who break the cycle of poverty, making school funding a hotly debated topic among politicians and lawmakers.