Chesney Guest Column: Protecting School Choice for Illinois Families

Despite the setbacks coming out of the 2022 legislative session with Democrats’ rubber-stamping JB Pritzker’s agenda on numerous policy fronts, one positive outcome was achieved on a bipartisan basis, thanks to members of the Black Caucus and Latino Caucus who joined with Republicans to save Illinois’ successful school choice program that helps families in communities where public schools are underperforming and too often flat-out failing the needs of our students, by giving them the ability to provide their child with a quality K-12 education at a non-public school.

Enacted in 2017, the Invest in Kids Act Tax Credit Scholarship Program provides need-based scholarships to kids from low-income and working-class families to attend their best-fit school. The scholarship program is funded by Empower Illinois, a non-profit organization that gives low-income and working-class families the opportunity to explore new, quality K-12 education options through private school scholarships.

Since 2018, the Invest in Kids Act Tax Credit Scholarship Program has awarded more than 28,000 scholarships totaling more than $250 million. The average scholarship recipient’s family income is just over $38,000, and 49% are Black or Hispanic, according to Empower Illinois.

In his February 2021 budget proposal, Governor Pritzker labeled these low-income students as “tax loopholes” and sought to cut the Invest in Kids program by $14 million. He proposed reducing the tax credit, cutting what private school donors receive from 75 cents on the dollar to 40 cents.

Pushing back with the voices of thousands of parents whose children have benefited from the program on our side, we instead not only preserved the tax credit in the budget passed last year, we were able to extend it for an additional year. Invest in Kids originally was set to expire in 2022, but we extended it through 2023. Facing the threat of school choice being gutted or killed off entirely yet again this session, I knew I needed to step up to advocate for these families.

This spring, I co-sponsored legislation to strengthen and extend Invest in Kids through 2024, House Bill 4126, spearheaded by Representative Curtis Tarver of Chicago, a Democrat. Our bill ensures that students who received the tax credit scholarship in the previous year are first in line for a scholarship the next year, so long as they remain eligible. This will protect these kids from having the state pull the rug out from underneath them from year-to-year. We made other changes including giving qualified schools the ability to offer partial scholarships to families in income tiers above 185% of the federal poverty level.

We still need to act to make Invest in Kids permanent, over the opposition of radical left activists who hold enormous influence over Governor Pritzker and Democrats in Springfield. These partisan activists don’t like to acknowledge that private school families still pay taxes that support public schools, which means one less student crowding a public classroom. The fact is, Illinois’ school choice program does not take a single dollar out of a public school classroom.

Right now, the Invest in Kids Act is set to be repealed on January 1, 2025. My goal is that next year, hopefully with a new Governor in office and more Republicans elected to the Illinois House and Senate, we will pass legislation to make Invest in Kids permanent and offer hope and choice to thousands more families across Illinois.