Invest in Kids program works to serve students despite opposition, pandemic challenges


One of the nation’s largest tax-credit scholarship programs that helps disadvantaged students attend a private school in Illinois is running out of time.

Invest in Kids, enacted in 2017, is a 5-year pilot program and provides scholarships funded by business and individual donations, 75% of which can be written off as a state tax credit. It was part of a sweeping bipartisan education bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The program has been met with opposition from Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Education Association who said the program diverts dollars from public schools to private schools.

Shelby Doyle, the director of communications with National School Choice Week, which is Jan. 25-30, said school choice is not a knock on public schools.

“School choice is not necessary because we think there is something wrong with the status quo, it is necessary because of how we think people are,” said Doyle. “We think they are individuals and everybody has different needs for what is going to work for them.”

Anthony Holter, executive director of Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization, said everyone should have the opportunity to choose a quality education.

“Those who are already most marginalized or disenfranchised, those options don’t exist for them,” Holter said. “They cannot seek other options, they cannot move to another public school district and can’t afford tuition.”

The Invest in Kids program has raised $166 million in donations over three years. Holter said last year Empower Illinois issued 5,500 scholarships, and with every one issued, there were six more kids in line for one.

The Invest in Kids program was struggling when Pritzker was elected because of concerns the new governor would shut it down, but hundreds of teachers and students lobbied legislators to come to the rescue. Holter is hoping legislators will not let the lights go out on the program.

“I don’t know how you could say no,” Holter said. “It is a moral imperative and I believe, I hope that lawmakers will see it that way.”

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