Town hall overflows as push to retain tax scholarship program intensifies
By Paul Thomas Moore
Terry Mischler, director of religious education at St. Mark School in Peoria, didn’t hear everything the speakers said at the Oct. 12 town hall in the packed school gym to save Illinois’ Invest in Kids tax scholarship program.
She was too busy taking people to overflow classrooms showing a livestream of the program, designed to convince state legislators to retain the program that provides scholarships for low-income families to enroll their children in a non-public school of their choice.
But if one message came through to Mischler, it was “the representation from all of the area schools . . . there was just a great sense of unity.”
The estimated crowd of 600 from 19 non-public schools seconded that emotion — as did speakers such as Marc Smith Sr., vice president of the board of South Side Christian Academy in Peoria.
“I’m loving the sentiments that I’m hearing tonight,” said Smith, whose son Marc Jr. is in first grade at South Side. “I’ve heard about faith and family, community, integrity . . . different groups, different races, slight variations of faith . . . I’m encouraged.”
CONTACT STATE LAWMAKERS
Dr. Susan Miller, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria, said it is important to continue to “place significant pressure on elected officials to agree to extend the Invest in Kids program.” To that end, an additional town hall gathering took place Oct. 19 at The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign, drawing 400 participants. (See story below.)
Catholics throughout the diocese are encouraged to urge state lawmakers to continue the program. One way to do that easily is found online at savemyscholarship.org.
Bishop Louis Tylka, in comments to priests of the diocese gathered for their Assembly Days on Oct. 18, echoed the sense of urgency.
“We need to push this,” he told the priests. “We need to get our legislators to understand how important this is.” Several Catholic schools have come to depend on the added enrollment resulting from the tax scholarship program.
“It’s pretty sad to think that a program that really benefits the state and helps out so many young people could be taken away by this legislature,” said Bishop Tylka.
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.
To have the Invest in Kids program end is exactly what student speakers such as Brooke Burger, scholarship recipient at Peoria Christian High School, did not want. “I have been thriving at my private school and I love it,” she said, and then proceeded to enumerate some of the reasons why — “the community, the family, the friends, the power of being together and walking through life in close relationship, the teachers . . . .”
Miranda Eversole was in nursing school when her Invest in Kids application for son Zane, then in first grade at a public school, was accepted. “Recess was the only thing he actually liked,” she said. “He cried a lot.” With the change to Holy Family School in Peoria, “We saw an immediate change.” Today, “we’ve closed the learning gaps . . . he’s like ‘Ok, we’re going to school.’” Of the more individualized attention possible at a smaller school, she pointed out, “Not everybody needs this, but some kids do.”
WORDS OF SUPPORT
State legislators scheduled to attend the program at St. Mark included Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria), speaker pro tempore and chief budgeteer in the Illinois House of Representatives, and Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria), assistant majority leader in the Illinois Senate.
Gordon-Booth, however, was a late cancellation. Speaking for her, Kanika Jones, her director of events and outreach, said Gordon-Booth wanted to pass on that she “wholeheartedly supports the continuation of the Invest in Kids.”
Jones added that Gordon-Booth’s daughter recently started attending Christ Lutheran School — one of 19 area schools represented at the town hall — and that “she would like that all families continue (to have) the same opportunity regardless of their economic ability to make sure that their children are able to attend a private school if they choose.”
Gordon-Booth was scheduled to meet in-person with area school officials on Thursday, Oct. 19, also at St. Mark School. Superintendent Miller said the purpose of the meeting is “hopefully, to help us craft what’s the right compromise — are we getting closer, is there something else you need?”
This follows the putting forward of a compromise bill on Oct. 17 by the Catholic Conference of Illinois and program administrator Empower Illinois that would amend the current Invest in Kids tax credit format to offer higher-percentage credits for small donors, and for donations targeting schools in historically-disadvantaged areas.
Sen. Koehler painted a more qualified picture. Upon coming to the podium, he described himself as “very impressed with the passion that you have and for all the stories that you’ve told.”
Still, he said there were hurdles, “about credentialing of teachers, about how kids that are different, LGBTQ kids — are they accepted into the schools?” He summed up: “I don’t want any of you to think this is going to be just a slam dunk; it’s not, ok, it’s going to be a lot of tough work.”
Miller spoke before Sen. Koehler and so didn’t have a chance to take exception to the issues he described, but in conversation with him afterward she respectfully expressed concerns about perpetuating “misinformation about our schools.”
She explained that Catholic schools “follow the same credentialing rules” as Illinois public schools for teachers. Miller also responded to the senator’s rhetorical question as to whether LGBTQ children would be “accepted” into the schools. “The reality is we know those students are in our schools,” she said. “We are not here to judge our children, we are here to support them . . . and to remind them over and over again that they are loved, they are worthy and they are enough.”
400 AT TOWN HALL IN CHAMPAIGN
CHAMPAIGN — An estimated 400 attendees enthusiastically expressed their support for retaining the Invest in Kids Act tax scholarship program during a town hall on Oct. 19 at The High School of Saint Thomas More.
Unfortunately, that enthusiasm was met by a more tepid response from area politicians than at the earlier town hall in Peoria.
Dr. Susan Miller, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria, said Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana) “could not arrange her schedule to be there.” Meanwhile, Sen. Paul Faraci (D-Champaign) — who was in attendance — was apparently unpersuaded.
“He was very clear,” said Miller of Sen. Faraci. “He said his kids go to public school, he’s not really sure that it’s worth the money. We had some great speakers again, and it was not swaying him at all.”
Dr. Jerry Sanderson, associate superintendent of schools for the diocese, added that if Sen. Faraci was concerned about costs, “He should actually be advocating an expansion of the program,” clarifying that Invest in Kids’ scholarships cost the taxpayer “less than half” of the cost of educating a child in the public school system.
EDITOR’S NOTE: More photos as well as a video from the St. Mark town hall have been posted to The Catholic Post’s site on Facebook.