Despite upheaval, threats of closure, tax credit scholarship program earns top marks in first year
Juan Rangel knows what kind of impact the state’s tax credit scholarship (TCS) program can have on children and families.
“Last year, the first year of scholarship program, was extremely successful for a program out for the first time,” Rangel, strategy director for advocacy group Empower Illinois, said during a recent appearance on Chicago’s Morning Answer radio show. “Over $61 million was raised from private donations to get kids scholarships to go to schools that fit their needs. It was one of the few bright spots in government, a law that was passed in a bipartisan way.”
After a heated political battle in Springfield that had Gov. J.B. Pritzker vowing to phase out the program before succumbing to staunch advocates, Rangel is hoping for a repeat performance in the second year of the program.
“Things have been a little bit different,” Rangel said. “Even though Gov. Pritzker, when he was campaigning did say he wanted to phase out the program, we really didn’t expect him to follow through. We spent the better part of the last half of the year fighting that back and trying to build up support on both sides of the aisle.”
Now with those issues at least partly quieted, Rangel said Empower Illinois is trying to get back to the nuts and bolts that make the TCS so special.
“Over 7,000 kids received a scholarship last year and we’re hoping that more will be able to do so,” Rangel said. “Part of the challenge that we have, and it’s partly due to the uncertainty of the future of the program, is the fundraising has lagged a little behind where we were last year. Today, Empower Illinois has been able to raise about $22 million to date. That’s an incredible amount of money, but there’s more that can be done and we have to be able to raise it.”
Father John Belmonte, superintendent of Catholic Schools, Diocese of Joliet, holds out hope.
“For us, over 2,000 students have applied for the program,” Belmonte said, adding that the Joliet School system has seen an increase in donations over the last two months compared to last year. “When you ask the question of whether parents want to see a school choice, the answer is an enthusiastic yes.”
As part of the Invest in Kids Act created in 2017, the tax credit scholarship program is funded through private donations where donors are allowed to receive tax credits of up to 75 percent. As part of the original five-year pilot program, as much as $100 million in scholarships was earmarked for children from low-income and working-class families across the state.