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 parents across Illinois will be camped out in front of their computers Tuesday evening when the application window for a share of the state’s private school scholarship program opens, even though the future of the program is uncertain with Democrats looking to defund it.

The Invest in Kids five-year pilot private school scholarship program takes tax-discounted donations and uses the money to pay tuition for children to go to the private school of their choice.

Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship-granting organization, will open their portal for parents to reserve their child’s spot in line for consideration at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Executive Director Anthony Holter his organization is ready for the thousands of applicants expected to log in, saying a two-step method will prevent the server issues that left a number of parents upset last year.

“That secures their timestamp for their first-come, first-served spot in line for the tax credit scholarships,” he said.

The organizations have raised $7.7 million of the available $100 million for this period, meaning there is less money at the onset of the program than last year. If the full $100 million reached, it would allow Empower and the handful of other SGOs to send between 10,000 and 15,000 students to a private school with tuition largely covered.

Holter said incoming Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s campaign promise to end the program has some donors concerned they won’t get their tax credit for 75 percent of their donation.

“To be honest, I think there is a little bit of a wait-and-see,” he said. “Our message has always been ‘a deal’s a deal. Give us the five years.’”

He said there is likely to be more donations near tax time and the end of the calendar year.

The Big Shoulders Fund, another SGO, opens its portal for registration at 8 p.m. Jan. 22.

“In the end, the impact on families will win the day,” director Josh Hale said.

The program was included in the school funding overhaul State Rep. Will Davis, D-Homewood, sponsored. He said Pritzker isn’t a fan and expects a bill to repeal it even though he said it’s too early to see if the program has been successful.

“I don’t know if we know just yet since it’s only been recently implemented,” he said. “I think we just need to take that look moving forward to see if it is indeed working.”

Davis said he worried that the program isn’t helping low-income children improve like supporters had promised it would. Holter said three out of four grant recipients from Empower lived in a family under 180 percent of the state poverty line. Hale said the average income of a family whose child received one of their grants was $22,500.

Pritzker’s office was not available for comment on the governor's plans for the program.

In its first year, the Invest in Kids program will have helped nearly 5,600 students with tuition assistance that will send them to a private school of their choosing. Demand for tuition aid has outpaced donations. Empower Illinois, one of the organizations that distribute the money, said more than 30,000 students still are waiting for tuition assistance.

Previous bills would have required full funding adequacy in public schools across the state before the Invest in Kids tax credits would be issued.

The week of Jan. 14 is National School Choice Week.

Regional Editor

Cole Lauterbach is a regional editor for The Center Square covering Arizona, California, and Nevada. For more than a decade, Cole has produced award-winning content on both radio and television.

Staff Reporter

Greg Bishop reports on Illinois government and other issues for The Center Square. Bishop has years of award-winning broadcast experience and hosts the WMAY Morning Newsfeed out of Springfield.