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Peoria private schools advocate for extension of state's Invest in Kids scholarship program

Parents, students, teachers and clergy members gather in the gymnasium at St. Mark's school to advocate for the Invest in Kids Act.
Camryn Cutinello
Parents, students, teachers and clergy members gather last week in the gymnasium at St. Mark's school to advocate for the Invest in Kids Act.

Hundreds of students, parents, teachers and clergy members gathered at St. Mark’s School to ask Democratic lawmakers to support extending the controversial Invest in Kids Act.

The Illinois General Assembly returns to Springfield Oct. 24 for its fall veto session, which will be the last chance to extend the act before it sunsets at the end of the year. State Sen. Dave Koehler, D-Peoria, attended last week's event.

One of the parents who spoke was Peoria native Marc Smith, who was there for the opportunity to speak directly to legislative leaders.

“The most important thing that [lawmakers] can do is support an act that allows the least of these, or the impoverished children, speaking specifically as a representative of the South Side, who won't have an opportunity to get a quality education like this without an act such as the Invest in Kids Act,” he said.

Smith’s son attends a private school on a scholarship. He said if an extension is not passed, his family will be faced with some difficult decisions.

“So, really just emphasizing that blue collar people, hard-working people who need an opportunity to get their kids into an environment that’s going to nurture them and really help them grow,” Smith said. “They need to really think about the impact that they would be leaving by failing to remove the sunset.”

The Invest in Kids Act became law in 2017, following the two-year budget impasse. It was part of an agreement between then-Gov. Bruce Rauner and former Speaker of the House Mike Madigan to pass evidence-based funding for Illinois public schools.

The program allows individuals or businesses to donate to scholarship funds in exchange for a 75% income tax credit.

The scholarships then go to students whose annual family income doesn’t exceed 300% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that’s just under $80,000 a year.

According to reports from the Illinois Department of Revenue, more than 9,000 scholarships were awarded statewide in the 2022-23 school year. There were more than 250 given to Peoria students.

The law was written to sunset after five years, but it was extended during the pandemic. But now, it’s set to expire at the end of this year. Proponents want the sunset provision removed.

Susan Miller, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, said some schools rely on the funding for the program.

“About half of our tuition comes from families, the other half comes from donors already,” she said. “So, trying to make up more of that gap is going to be really, really challenging. And that may mean we end up having to close schools.”

According to the Illinois Department of Revenue, the scholarships brought in more than $600,000 for Peoria private schools in 2021.

State Senator Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) and Kanika Jones, director of Events and Outreach for Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, listen to speeches from superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria Susan Miller.
Camryn Cutinello
State Senator Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) and Kanika Jones, director of Events and Outreach for Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, listen to speeches from superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria Susan Miller.

Koehler said he is not an advocate for either side, but will vote for the act if a compromise is reached and it is brought to the Senate floor.

“I'm not given any assurances that that's going to happen because this is a very polarized issue,” he said. “And the groups on either side of this issue are just as passionate about it.”

But he said there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the act, including if the scholarships are going to the kids who really need them, and if LGBTQ+ kids are being excluded.

State Rep. Jehan Gordon Booth’s Director of Events and Outreach Kanika Jones also attended the event. Gordon-Booth’s daughter attends a private school in Peoria, and Jones said she “wholeheartedly supports” extending the act.

Jones said a compromise will need to be reached before the bill is brought for a vote. Koehler said he has not heard anything indicating that will happen.

“We should have been discussing this long ago, before we get to the end of the, where the sunset takes place, but it is what it is,” he said. “I'll see if we can't get some meaningful discussion started. But again, I can't make any promises on this because I don't know. This is one of those issues that is going to be very tough to pull together.”

Republican members of both chambers in the Illinois General Assembly tried to get the extension included in the budget that passed during the spring session, but it was not a part of the final package.

Gov. JB Pritzker has shifted his stance on the act. While running against Rauner in 2018, he said he would not support an extension. He most recently said he would support it, if the size of the tax credit is reduced.

The act costs the state up to $75 million a year in tax credits, prompting opponents to question if that money will be better spent on public schools.

One parent attending the event said she is a teacher at Peoria Public Schools. She has a child who received a scholarship.

"If anything, we're relieving some of the burden of the public schools,” she said. “I'm a teacher. I know how crowded those classrooms are. I know how hard it is to find qualified teachers to teach in the public schools. So the fact that they're losing some kids into the private schools isn't such a bad thing.”

The parent, who declined to give her name, said she believes parents should have a choice of where their kids attend school.

“These choices shouldn't be just for people of wealth,” she said. “Everyone should be allowed to make these choices for whatever is best for their child, whatever their child needs, to get the best education they possibly can.”

The veto session begins Oct. 24 and is scheduled to go for six days this month and and November.

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Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.