‘Real people’ help save Invest in Kids Act scholarship program from budget axe

Among the 14 schools from the Diocese of Peoria that were represented in the Save My Scholarship campaign was Blessed Sacrament in Morton. Principal Mike Birdoes (far left) was at the State Capitol on May 31 when Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, D-Cicero, announced that the Invest in Kids Act had been saved. (Provided photo)

It’s safe.

Despite threats to reduce the cap for donations by 50 percent or phase out the program, the Invest in Kids Act came through the state budget process unscathed as the Illinois General Assembly completed its work.

“We’re extremely pleased that Gov. Pritzker has decided to keep the program intact and honor the original legislation, which gave the program five years to show that it can work,” said Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria.

He noted that it had been successful in its first year.

“Thousands of students across the state that otherwise couldn’t afford the option to attend a Catholic school or other nonpublic school have been able to receive a scholarship under the Invest in Kids Act,” he told The Catholic Post on June 3. “Our intention is to go forth and really grow this program to maximize how many children are benefiting across our diocese.”

SCHOLARSHIP CAMPAIGN

Signed into law on Aug. 31, 2017, the Invest in Kids Act allows individuals and corporations to make a donation to a scholarship granting organization (SGO) and receive a 75 percent credit on that amount when filing their state tax return. Individuals may designate the school that will benefit from their gift.

The cap for any one donation is $1 million, with a total cap of $100 million per year. That means up to $75 million in tax credits may be claimed per calendar year.

While that’s important to know, it wasn’t the ability to debate the issues that saved the program, according to Juan Rangel, strategy director for Empower Illinois.

Throughout the month of May, the scholarship granting organization invited school parents, leaders and advocates to travel to Springfield to talk with lawmakers about how the Invest in Kids Act is making a difference in their lives. Those taking part in the Save My Scholarship campaign each day wore blue t-shirts and buttons to make them easily identifiable.

“These are real people. They’re not just numbers. It’s not about the budget — it’s about families and children,” Rangel said. “It makes (legislators) think twice about what they’re voting on.”

Those stories were the real strength of the campaign, he said, and they were shared with 42 senators and 78 representatives — nearly 70 percent of the General Assembly — some more than once. One group had a meeting with Gov. Pritzker, while the others left written messages in support of the program at his office every day.

Among the 146 schools represented in the Save My Scholarship campaign were 14 from the Diocese of Peoria. Rangel praised them, saying, “There are a number of great leaders that have emerged from this campaign.”

FOSTERING RELATIONSHIPS

If having a consistent presence was important to saving the tax credit scholarships, it will be just as important moving forward, Rangel said, emphasizing that it was not Empower Illinois that successfully defended the program.

“It was parents and school leaders that took the time to write letters, to visit legislators at their district offices, to make phone calls and emails, and certainly coming all the way down to Springfield to ensure that their children’s voices are heard,” he said. “This will not be the last time the legislators will hear from them. They will continue to be engaged.”

In addition to fostering those relationships and thanking the lawmakers, it is vital to assure donors that the program is safe so they will continue making contributions, Rangel said.

Sanderson pointed out that Empower Illinois had processed more than $45 million in donations last year. This year $18 million has been processed so far. Scholarships can only be awarded if funds are available.

In the Diocese of Peoria, for example, 261 scholarships have been granted, but there were 1,810 applications. Statewide there are 43,000 students awaiting scholarship funding, according to Empower Illinois.

Sanderson called it a win-win situation for everyone because it means that scholarship recipients are able to choose the school that is the best fit for their family and donors are able to choose a program they believe in.

To learn more about the Invest in Kids Act and how to donate, click here.

 

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