New Illinois Scholarship Program Opens Doors for Low-Income Students to Thrive
The start of a new year brings potentially thousands of new educational opportunities for students in Illinois, thanks to a new scholarship program that began accepting donations January 2.
Included in the historic educational funding legislation Republican Governor Bruce Rauner signed last year, the Invest in Kids Act allows individuals and businesses to donate money to specific non-profit “scholarship granting organizations,” which will distribute thousands of scholarships to students whose families struggle to cover the costs of private-school tuition and fees. In return, donors receive tax credits worth 75 percent of contributions—credits which the state will cap at $75 million per year.
"We are making history in the state of Illinois," Rauner said in November. "Anyone who contributes to this scholarship program is making the best investment of all, one that ensures all of our kids have access to quality education and a brighter future."
The Invest in Kids Act would provide thousands of opportunities for families to choose from a wider variety of schools, especially for low-income students who wish to attend private or charter schools but lack the financial means.
Students in the lowest income categories will have the first priority on scholarships, with some recipients seeing educational awards as high as $13,000. Students who are gifted, have special education needs, or are English language learners are eligible for up to double that amount, or $26,000.
Proponents of the bill, which passed with bipartisan support in August 2017, estimate that between 6,000 and 15,000 students could receive scholarships, depending on the amount donated.
“This legislation recognizes that one of the most important decisions parents make is where their children will go to school,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich, head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, which operates over 150 private Catholic schools in Cook and Lake counties.
“Prior to the enactment of this law, low-income families had no choice because they did not have the financial means to consider a non-public school. The Tax Credit Scholarship Program provides low-income families with the ability to choose. In short, tax credit scholarships even the playing field.”
Of the over 150,000 students in Illinois who attend Catholic schools, 76,000 are served by the Archdiocese network. Nearly half these students are from racial minorities, and about 20 percent hail from low-income families that fall below the poverty line, according to the Archdiocese.
Though the Archdiocese contributes roughly $30 million each year to financially support its students, the cost of tuition and fees is still the biggest barrier to student attendance, Blase said.
And, with the closing of more Chicago public schools serving students from low-income neighborhoods, the need for accessible schools has risen.
“While we have an outstanding record of success, we know affordability is the top reason more families do not choose our schools,” Blase said. “Now that can change.”
Who Can Apply, and How
Families can begin reserving their spots to apply for scholarships at 7 p.m. on February 27, even if the student has yet to be accepted to a private school. Families will first be prompted to "reserve" a place in the application line, which will time-stamp applications for the first-come, first-serve basis. Registrants will then receive an email with further instructions on how to complete the application process.
The purpose of the scholarship is to give low-income students educational opportunities equal to their peers, so the student’s household income is a factor in eligibility.
To be considered for a priority scholarship, students must either reside in a home where the previous year’s total annual income does not exceed 185% of the federal poverty level—$45,510 for a family of four—or live within the bounds of a “focus district,” which includes dozens of schools and school districts throughout the state.
Families can apply for scholarships between February and April, with priority for students whose financial situations are the direst.
Applications are submitted through EmpowerIllinois.org and take approximately 15–20 minutes, according to the website. To apply, families will need to supply a 2015–2016 tax return or another document showing the family’s household income, as well as proof of state residency, proof of the student’s age, and, if possible, an acceptance letter to a private institution—though students may apply without one.
Alerts will later be sent to selected recipients, and funds will be distributed to schools at the start of the 2018 school year.
To donate, Illinois residents must first have an account on MyTax.Illinois.Gov. Once the account is set up and approved, donors can reserve their donation through the Illinois Department of Revenue.
The Department of Revenue will then issue a tax credit, and residents have up to 60 days to make a donation.