Private schools lament end of state's Invest in Kids tax credit for scholarships

"Disappointed" and "devastated" is how some suburban private schools characterized the demise of the Invest in Kids scholarship initiative.

The controversial program, which helps lower-income families pay for private schools, expires Dec. 31, 2023. Efforts to extend it went nowhere during the General Assembly's fall veto session.

"We were deeply disappointed that legislators failed to even vote on the bill," St. Francis High School President Phil Kerr said. The Wheaton school has 29 scholarship recipients enrolled.

"It puts our school and our families in a challenging situation, and worst of all, puts our students at risk of losing the opportunity to attend their best-fit school," Kerr said.

Invest in Kids is funded by donations that topped $75 million in 2022-23. Contributors receive a 75% tax credit. Nearly 10,000 students received scholarships in 2022-23, the Illinois Department of Revenue reported.

The tax credit spurred a furious debate over public vs. private school funding.

Teachers unions hailed the legislative outcome.

"This program sent millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools and was created under the guise of helping students of color, but we now know the funds went primarily to white students," Illinois Education Association President Al Llorens said in a statement on Nov. 10, just after the session ended.

"Eighty percent of our public schools in Illinois are underfunded. We need to focus on providing the necessary funding to our public schools so that all children in Illinois continue to have access to a high-quality, public education."

Numerous Democrats agreed, saying Invest in Kids diverted public funds to religious institutions running counter to the separation of church and state and that there was no accountability from private schools.

Illinois Department of Revenue data shows that out of 9,656 awardees, 3,060 Hispanic students, 32%, and 1,904 Black students, 20%, received scholarships for 2022-23. Several suburban private school educators said the scholarships diversified their schools.

At Carmel Catholic High School: "We're devastated," Chief Enrollment and Advancement Officer Brian Stith said.

Carmel has 47 students with scholarships. Some are seniors who will graduate. But younger ones will lose funding that some view "as a lifeline to opportunity," Stith said.

He's worried for students and parents who are trying "to keep their kids in a school that they believe truly is the best-fit school for their children, where their children have begun to grow and flourish - socially and academically. My fear is that - with the decision - they're going to be forced to leave the school."

Republicans support the program, and Senate GOP Leader John Curran of Downers Grove pledged a renewed push in 2024.

"We are prepared to introduce new legislation to renew the program and will continue to work with advocates to call on the governor and Democratic majorities to call our legislation for a hearing and give a voice to the thousands of families who want the program revived," Curran said Friday.

"Gov. Pritzker stated this week that the state is 'running a surplus' so any further argument about the cost of the program is null and void. These are scholarships for low-income, taxpaying Illinois citizens who want to send their children to schools that better fit their students' needs," Curran added.

Democratic state Rep. Fred Crespo of Hoffman Estates told the Daily Herald previously that "we're talking about real money here. We're talking about $75 million that the state does not realize by giving out these credits."

Asked Friday if Invest in Kids could be renewed in 2024, Crespo said Democrats still have multiple concerns. For example, "there's a lot of issues that have not been addressed in terms of participation from Black and brown students," he explained.

Also, "Invest in Kids is really an appropriations bill with a fiscal impact on our budget of $75 million. I would hope if anyone is proposing we continue and remove the sunset - they would be willing to vote for the state budget," Crespo noted.

"I say that because over the past four or five years, Republicans who support Invest in Kids have not supported the budget."

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  John Titterton teaches students Friday in an Advanced Placement calculus class at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. Suburban private school leaders say the ending of Invest in Kids' scholarships will be devastating for students. Joe Lewnard/
  Students participate in teacher John Titterton's calculus class Friday at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. Suburban private school leaders say the ending of Invest in Kids' scholarships will be devastating for students. Joe Lewnard/
  Teacher Erin LoBue Major, middle, works with students Friday in a capstone engineering class at Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. Joe Lewnard/
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