Families benefit from Invest in Kids scholarship program

A recent commentary article was an attempt to invalidate the critical need for the Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship Program, established under the Invest in Kids Act. With more than 20 years of experience in the education sector here in Chicago, I feel compelled to offer an alternative perspective. 

The article never adequately considers the significant impact the program has had on low-income and under-represented families who participate, or the educational opportunities it has provided. The article overlooks the pressing need for accessible and diverse educational options for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Equity is undermined if this program is removed.  

One point raised is the notion that the state should focus on creating the best possible public education system, rather than “diverting tax dollars to subsidize the choice to send students to a private school.” The continued improvement of public schools and reaching the goals of the equity based funding model is essential. I am fully supportive of this work.

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But a one-size-fits-all approach may not address the needs of all families, particularly those in under-resourced communities. This program is not intended to and does not undermine public education. In fact, school districts are held harmless if a public school student is awarded a scholarship. This program supplements and enhances the educational landscape by offering an alternative for families.

The article cites a controversial study that claimed students in public schools outperformed students in private and charter schools. That study has been criticized, and other research indicates that students thrive academically in private schools.  

Since 2017, hundreds of thousands of students have applied for scholarships statewide with the vast majority on waiting lists to participate. The overwhelming response highlights the immense demand for the program, which has opened doors to educational opportunities that would have otherwise remained out of reach for the students who need it most. 

Finally, it is critical to address the issue of quality. Parents are not sacrificing quality by choosing to send their children to a values-based school. The schools in the Big Shoulders Fund network are long-standing, community-based organizations committed to academic excellence. Our schools serve approximately 20,000 children in Chicago, nearly 70% of whom live in low-income households. Additionally, more than 30% of students enrolled in our schools are not Catholic, which supports the inclusive nature of parochial education.

Most importantly, data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that 81% of graduates from Big Shoulders high schools enroll in college. That is a far higher rate than the 61.8% for Chicago Public Schools. We take pride in the role our schools play in fostering inclusivity and contributing to a more equitable world.

Illinois lawmakers are considering now the option to renew the Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship Program. My hope is that they continue to recognize this program’s invaluable contribution to expanding educational opportunities and promoting equitable educational access, particularly for the intended beneficiaries: talented and hardworking children from under-resourced, under-represented communities. 

Joshua D. Hale, president and CEO, Big Shoulders Fund