Illinois families catching crossfire in scholarship fight

 
Updated 5/22/2018 8:37 AM
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  • Austin Berg

    Austin Berg

What happens when a political talking point becomes more than mere words? Illinois parents in need of better schools are learning just that.

Marlene Suarez is one Illinois mom who wants a better future for her two daughters. The Chicago native is raising her family in the same neighborhood where she grew up, Little Village. That comes with its fair share of challenges. As school gets out for the summer, violence is likely to swell, cruelly correlated with the temperature. But Suarez knows a quality education is powerful enough to transform those circumstances. And that's why for the past few years, she's sacrificed a great deal of her paycheck for her second-grader and fifth-grader to attend a local Catholic school.

"There's tutors, there's one-on-one always with the teachers, there's more communication. Access to getting help is always there," she said, " … in a public [school] setting there is so much more violence that I've seen."

Unfortunately, that transformative education was about to become out of reach. Rising tuition costs and tight finances forced Suarez to consider taking her daughters out of their school this year.

But then, along with thousands of other lower-income families in Illinois, she hit the lottery.

Suarez is benefiting from Illinois' Invest in Kids Act. Passed as part of the state's education funding package last summer, this tax credit scholarship program is one of the largest of its kind in the nation.

Here's how it works: For every dollar in charitable donations to specific scholarship granting organizations, or SGOs, the state offers a 75-cent tax credit. The SGOs then award scholarships to students, with the Suarezes among those who got lucky.

In early January, the state reported $36 million in SGO contributions within the program's first 48 hours.

The waitlist for one SGO, Children's Tuition Fund, is more than 5,000 students long.

Another SGO, Empower Illinois, received 24,000 applications as soon as its scholarship program went live, causing its website to crash. The group has received applications from 50,000 students.

Despite that booming demand, there are political efforts afoot to crush the scholarship program.

Senate Bill 2236, currently poised for a Senate vote, allows the state to withhold tax credits obliged to scholarship donors if the state doesn't hit its pie-in-the-sky targets for increased funding to public schools.

Of course, the real reason behind those lawmakers' lofty rhetoric is that teachers unions despise the scholarship program, just as they despise any policy supporting educational alternatives. And they'll be sure to spend campaign cash accordingly.

These games happen all the time in Springfield.

What's particularly sad about this case is that Invest in Kids is working -- but it could be doing so much more.

Austin Berg, aberg@illinoispolicy.org, is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute.

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