Macomb family an example of how end of scholarship program would ‘devastate’
By Paul Thomas Moore
MACOMB — A Macomb family has become the “face” of the Illinois Invest in Kids scholarship program, which is set to expire at the end of the year.
Kelly and Brandon Nelson have two biological children, Zachary, 11, and Elizabeth, 9, who attend St. Paul School in Macomb through the program, which provides scholarships for low-income families to enroll their children in the non-public school of their choice.
On Sept. 8, the Nelsons opened their hearts and expanded their home to adopt an additional five children they have been fostering for more than three years, all of whom are from the same family. The oldest child, Mystori, 12, attends junior high, but with the assistance of the Invest in Kids program, the four younger children — Anthony, 10; Mylee, 9; Victoria, 6; and David, 5 — attend St. Paul, which serves pre-kindergarten through sixth grade.
Let your voice be heard: Catholics throughout the Diocese of Peoria are encouraged to urge state lawmakers to continue the Invest in Kids Act Tax Scholarship Program. It can be done easily online at savemyscholarship.org. In addition, the public is invited to a key town hall meeting at St. Mark School in Peoria on Oct. 12. (Details below.) The fall veto session of the Illinois Legislature is scheduled for Oct. 24-26 and Nov. 7-9. Unless legislators extend the veto session, the last possible date they could take action to save the Invest in Kids program is Nov. 9.
Unfortunately, the Invest in Kids program “sunsets” at the end of 2023. If the program is not extended, the Nelsons face the unenviable parental decision of splitting up their new family, as they would be unable to afford tuition for all of them at St. Paul.
“It would be devastating. They literally wake up in the morning excited to go back, and they call themselves ‘St. Paul Saints,’” Kelly told The Catholic Post.
FOR ALL GOD’S CHILDREN
The state program is all about school choice for lower income families, and more than 9,000 Illinois students benefitted from it in the 2021-2022 school year. Though the Nelsons aren’t Catholic, as committed Christians a faith-based environment was very important in their choice of a school for their children. Furthermore, as St. Paul principal Laura Cody said of the Invest in Kids program, “this is for all of God’s children, not just for all of God’s Catholic kids.”
There was an additional consideration in the Nelsons’ choice of St. Paul — their adoptive children didn’t have the easiest time of it before they came into the Nelsons’ care.
“It’s just a positive, happy, loving environment!” said Kelly. “That is important for all kids, but especially important for kids who have endured trauma. We wholeheartedly believe our kids are in the best school to thrive.”
Brandon added, “This scholarship has given our kids an opportunity to attend a school that recognizes their individuality and needs.”
HOW ABOUT ST. PAUL?
Donors are the other side of the Invest in Kids Program, and they earn a 75 percent Illinois tax credit on contributions. In the Diocese of Peoria, the program is administered by the nonprofit organization Empower Illinois, which receives donor contributions and student applications and distributes the scholarships.
“Everybody’s always looking for a way to reduce their taxes, and this is just a great opportunity,” said donor Brian Savage. A retired CPA who started his career with the Internal Revenue Service and later worked as a partner in a financial planning firm, Savage knows about tax-saving opportunities.
Earlier, as a business student at Western Illinois University in Macomb from 1969-1973, Savage would attend “guitar folk Masses” in the St. Paul School gym, and he felt very welcomed by the St. Paul Parish community. Although unable to put much in the collection basket in those days, Savage vowed that when he was in a position to do so, “I would give back.”
When the Invest in Kids program started in 2017, he and his wife Linda, who live in Plainfield, earmarked a donation to assist St. Irene School in Warrenville in the Diocese of Joliet, where their grandchildren were attending. However, when St. Irene closed in 2021, Savage recalls, “Linda and I said, ‘This is just such a good program . . . we need to support schools,’ and I said, ‘How about St. Paul in Macomb?’”
Critics of the Invest in Kids program claim that it funnels taxpayer dollars away from the public schools.
Dr. Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Peoria, disagreed.
“No dollars are diverted from public schools for Invest in Kids scholarships,” said Sanderson. “If we closed all the non-public schools in the State of Illinois tomorrow, and all those children had to attend public schools, it would cost taxpayers approximately an additional $2 billion.”
Principal Cody related what she had been told by a senior public school official: “He doesn’t have space for my 175 kids. He’s more than happy for programs like this because they can’t handle all that we would be giving them.”
Another concern that’s been expressed is that the program lacks oversight.
“In order to be able to participate in Invest in Kids, schools have to be state-recognized,” countered Sanderson. “That’s the state’s method of ensuring . . . that we’re following all the state regulations.”
Cody corroborated that schools participating in Invest in Schools are treated no differently than public schools. “There is as much oversight,” she said. “We have to fill out the same paperwork.”
“PACKED HOUSE” SOUGHT FOR INVEST IN KIDS TOWN HALL AT ST. MARK SCHOOL IN PEORIA OCT. 12
The grassroots campaign by families to save the Illinois Invest in Kids Scholarship Program kicks into a higher gear locally at a town hall in St. Mark School gym in Peoria on Thursday, Oct. 12. It begins at 6:30 p.m.
Invest in Kids provides scholarships to give low-income families the option of enrolling their children in nonpublic schools, including Catholic schools. Funding for the program will end unless Illinois legislators vote to extend it during the fall veto session scheduled for Oct. 24-26 and Nov. 7-9.
Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria), assistant majority leader in the Illinois Senate, and Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria), speaker pro tempore and chief budgeteer in the Illinois House of Representatives, will be in attendance at St. Mark on Oct. 12.
“We’re really excited about the opportunity,” said Dr. Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Peoria. “Our goal,” he added, “is to bring out as many people as possible to share why they would like the Invest in Kids legislation to be renewed, and to hear directly from the senator and the representative about what they intend to do to ensure that the program continues.”
Sanderson described the challenge of getting on the docket of the fall veto session since legislators have “a lot of things to consider, but not a lot of time to consider them.” The town hall at St. Mark is about “opening the door a crack,” he explained, so that putting Invest in Kids on the agenda “would actually be considered, and not just forgotten about.”
Sanderson added that town hall organizers are anticipating a “packed house” of more than 300 people, and are planning to livestream the session into classrooms to accommodate any overflow.