Illinois families catching crossfire in scholarship fight


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

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.

“I really didn’t believe it,” she said. “We were the only ones in the whole school that got in on the first try.”

Suarez is benefitting 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.

The program prioritizes the neediest students, offering the largest scholarships to those closest to the poverty line, as well as those who live in low-performing school districts.

In early January, the state reported $36 million in SGO contributions within the program’s first 48 hours. While donations have slowed since then, with contributions hovering around $41 million, the demand for scholarships has been overwhelming.

The waitlist for one SGO, Children’s Tuition Fund, is over 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.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker has publicly slammed the Invest in Kids Act, urging that the scholarships be discontinued “as soon as possible.” And some lawmakers are floating a proposal in the General Assembly that could derail the program before Pritzker could even take office.

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.

In Rockford, Lutheran schools director Scott Dabson has seen the benefits of these scholarships. But he’s also seen the effects of Springfield on fundraising to provide more of them.

“The most honest donor wants to donate knowing they’ll have the effect they intend to have,” Dabson said. “The longevity of the program is so important to that. To really ignite and get other people who want to donate, we have to get past the political back and forth. This [program] was a bipartisan agreement.”

Just a few miles southeast of Suarez, Shannon Beier lives in Woodlawn, a South Side neighborhood long lacking in opportunity. Her children, too, were lucky winners of the newly available scholarship money, allowing them to attend a faith-based school that Beier has fallen in love with.

“It’s a great school. It’s really diverse socioeconomically. We’re going to school with kids of all races who are way wealthier than us and have way less than us. And the teachers are really teaching them how to love to learn.”

“If we didn’t have the scholarships, we wouldn’t be able to go.”

Facing such a bright future, what’s it like to see some politicians calling for a return to square one?

“It makes me sad,” Beier said.

“There are a lot of kids, mine included, who are going to pay the price for that. It’s a long-term price, and Pritzker is not going to be the one paying for it.”

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