School choice advocates push to keep tax credit scholarship program alive

Tillis-Cunningham Debate

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — School choice advocates are launching a campaign to protect the tax credit program that incentivizes private school scholarships.

In 2017, the state set up a program encouraging donors to write checks to a scholarship program. The money helps to fund tuition for poor children to get into private schools.

The group ‘Empower Illinois’ brought Virginia Walden Ford, one of the nation’s leading school choice advocates, to Springfield on Monday to call on state legislators to extend the life of the ‘Invest in Kids’ tax credit.

“Everybody has school choice, except poor people,” Walden Ford said at an event in Springfield’s St. Patrick’s Catholic School on Monday. School officials were presented with a symbolic check worth nearly $200,000 representing the sum total of scholarship contributions that paid for students’ tuition at that school over the last three year span.

Walden Ford, a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas, helped desegregate the schools there in the 1960s, and became one of the nation’s leading advocates for school choice during the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s. Her story was highlighted in a Netflix film called ‘Miss Virginia.’

“My youngest son was failing,” she said. “He was getting pulled into the streets. I had to do something. And I began speaking out about his what he needed, and actually enrolled him at a private school but couldn’t afford to pay for it. And when I had to take him out of that school, because I couldn’t pay the tuition, that started me thinking there’s got to be a better way.”

A portion of the ‘Invest in Kids’ act could be pared down under Governor J.B. Pritzker’s budget proposal, which is due for a vote before a May 31st deadline.

During his first year in office, Pritzker proposed ending the tax credit program entirely, but backed off and agreed to keep it going. Now, his office is suggesting the state should reduce the value of the tax write-offs that are included in the program.

Right now, donors get 75 cents in state tax breaks for every dollar they contribute into the scholarship fund. The governor’s new plan would scale that down to 40 cents on the dollar.

The scholarships are in high demand. Advocates claim 170,000 students have applied, but they’ve only had enough money to award roughly 22,000 scholarships.

However, part of their obstacle is in fundraising. The state initially set a cap of $100 million, but at its peak year in 2020, donations only reached $67.5 million dollars, according to Empower Illinois.

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