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Op-Ed: From Invest in Kids to divest in futures, Illinois’ retreat from educational progress

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Illinois has made history, though a celebration is not in order. Defying the national trend, lawmakers disbanded the Invest in Kids Act, the state’s popular tax credit scholarship program, leaving educators, families and thousands of students unsure of their options going into the 2024 school year.

The reverberations of this regressive move are already being felt. In the Chicago area alone, two schools, St. Frances of Rome and St. Odilo, have announced closures as a result of the legislature’s failure to renew the legislation, and several more are expected to follow suit.

It’s a step in the wrong direction for a state already struggling to improve academic standards. The donor-funded scholarship program allowed students from low-income households to attend private schools. Donors received a 75% tax credit, and nearly 10,000 students, including 164 just at the two schools mentioned above, received the chance to attend high-performing schools that would otherwise have been unattainable.

With this simple arrangement, the Invest in Kids Act achieved its objectives without reducing the budget for public schools by a single cent. Even so, the program has had its critics. The most vocal among them are the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association, both teachers’ unions with significant influence over members of the Illinois General Assembly.

In the 2022 midterms, legislative leaders from both parties received large donations from these groups. While it is no surprise that the state’s teachers’ unions supported Democratic leaders given their strong opposition to renewing the program, the extent of their support for Republicans is startling.

House Minority Leader Rep. Tony McCombie, R-Ill, the leader of the GOP caucus who has made it a priority to restore tax credit scholarships, ended up receiving nearly $120,000 from a PAC affiliated with the Illinois Education Association. This financial support from an organization whose policies are widely opposed in her district and other GOP-leaning districts casts doubt on the authenticity of her and other funded Republicans’ advocacy for school choice.

Even more unsettling than these shady donations and questionable priorities is the silence over the issue that brought about the Act’s demise. House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Ill., simply refused to bring extension legislation up for a vote. With no word or movement from the Democratic House majority, the Invest in Kids Act – and all the academic progress it made in the lives of its students – came to an abrupt halt.

Why would critics like House Speaker Welch refuse to present their case to voters and go on record for their opposition? The answer is quite simple: Silence is an easier way to defeat a program that is popular among voters but unpopular with large scale donors than subjecting it to the attention and scrutiny of a debate.

The popularity of Invest in Kids among voters is not enough to overcome its unpopularity with politicians and their campaign donors, suggesting that the opposition prioritizes their re-election over the educational needs of families and students. Sadly, while kids in the program are barred from voting, members of the teachers’ unions and other special interests have that right.

Proponents of educational freedom have refused to give up. A bill has been introduced to extend the tax credit scholarship program until 2035.

However, the proposed legislation has failed to attract much support to date, with only one co-sponsor in the entire 177-member General Assembly. To make matters worse, it has been stuck in the Rules Committee since February, without a hearing date scheduled.

Unless fortunes change before the end of May, the future does not look bright for school choice in the Prairie State.

Yet, extending the Invest in Kids Act enjoys significant support among Illinois taxpayers. A recent poll conducted by the Illinois Policy Institute reveals that 63% of Illinoisians favor maintaining the program.

Voters seem more than ready to extend the program’s shelf life, and the parents and families who benefit from it clearly wish for its continuation. Now, it is up to the General Assembly to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, in the tangled web of Illinois politics, doing the right thing often seems like the hardest thing of all.