FILE - Sister Jean, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich promote tax-credit scholarships

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich and Loyola University’s Sr. Jean Dolores-Schmidt promote the Invest in Kids tax credit scholarships available to non-public school students in Illinois.

Tens of thousands of students hoping to go to the private school of their choice tuition-free signed up in the opening hours of availability at the state’s largest private school tuition granting organization.

Empower Illinois, one of the state’s scholarship-granting organizations for the Invest in Kids program, opened up its application portal for the 2020-2021 school year. In less than 36 hours, it reported nearly 25,000 student applications, nearly as many as it had in the organization's entire first year of operation and more than four-and-a-half times as many students that would able to receive tuition assistance.

“Again, we anticipated demand far exceeding capacity even if we were to hit that $100 million cap this year,” Empower Executive Director Anthony Holter said.

The Invest in Kids program proved to be wildly popular in the first of its five-year lifespan, garnering a total of $61.4 million, $45.1 million of that raised via Empower in 2018. School choice advocates have dubbed that total as the most money raised of any first-year tax credit scholarship program in U.S. history.

The program’s fundraising efforts were hampered by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who claimed the program saps state and federal funds from public schools and said he would phase it out before its five-year lifespan expired. Pressure from parents, particularly in low-income, traditionally Democratic areas, persuaded Pritzker to reverse course and allow the program to continue. The Illinois Department of Revenue has yet to finalize the numbers, but Holter estimated the state’s scholarship granting organizations raised about $50 million. 

The total devoted to the program for 2020 is $4.2 million so far, but Holter said a significant spike in donations is expected in April when the tax deadline is nearing and filers are looking for donations to lower their total burden.

Their fundraisers, in partnership with hundreds of private school officials, are tasked with seeking out those donations.

The Invest in Kids program was a part of the 2017 education funding overhaul negotiations. Then-Gov. Bruce Rauner touted it as one of the most expansive school choice vouchers in America. It grants donors a 75 percent state tax rebate in exchange for a donation directed to pay for student tuition at a private school, religious or otherwise.

National School Choice Week starts Jan. 26.

Staff Reporter

Cole Lauterbach reports on Illinois and Arizona government and statewide issues for The Center Square. He has produced radio shows for stations in Central Illinois and created award-winning programs for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.