Jim Dey | Pritzker's proposed cut to Invest in Kids conflicts with rhetoric

Jim Dey | Pritzker's proposed cut to Invest in Kids conflicts with rhetoric

When J.B. Pritzker ran for governor last year, much of his campaign platform was based on the premise of helping those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.

There's little reason to doubt the sincerity of the governor's rhetoric. Nonetheless, it's hard to square Pritzker's over-arching campaign theme with his plan to first cut back and then end a state-subsidized education program that last year provided scholarships to 5,457 low-income students, more than half of whom were not white.

"We should do away with it as soon as possible," Pritzker said during last year's campaign.

He was talking about the state's "Invest in Kids" program, a key component of the compromise legislation that revised the state's school-funding formula and was passed under former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Pritzker has since modified his goal to abolish Invest in Kids. Now, as a money-saving measure, he wants to cut the potential $100 million program to $50 million in the budget that takes effect on July 1. It would be further reduced in the three remaining years of the five-year pilot program.

Whatever Pritzker's personal feelings on Invest in Kids, it hasn't escaped his attention that teachers' unions despise the program because they consider it a means of diverting state funds from public schools.

To say that Pritzker is friendly to the private- and public-sector unions that wholeheartedly backed his election campaign wildly understates his devotion to their causes. Springfield political analyst Rich Miller recently wrote that "Pritzker never met a pro-union progressive idea that he didn't like."

The state subsidizes the scholarship program by giving donors a 75 percent tax credit on their state income tax for donations.

Because the program is now capped at $100 million, the most it can cost the state in lost revenue is $75 million.

But those are theoretical numbers.

A report recently issued by Empower Illinois, which oversees Invest in Kids, said it raised $45 million in donations in 2018 and used it to fund 5,459 scholarships at 401 private schools statewide. Illinois' seven scholarship-granting programs, which includes Empower Illinois, raised $61 million.

The number of scholarships granted by Empower Illinois was dwarfed by the number of requests for scholarships — 32,456. So many families applied for scholarships on the first day they could do so in January 2018 that the organization's computer system crashed.

Invest in Kids divides the state into five scholarship-granting zones.

More than half of the Empower Illinois donations — $35.3 million — were made in Cook County. That funded scholarships for 3,899 low-income students at 219 different schools.

Champaign and its neighboring counties are located in Region 4, where donors contributed $1.1 million. That money funded 269 scholarship at 32 different schools.

The average household income of scholarship recipients is $35,371, according to Empower Illinois. According to the organization, 1,988 contributors participated statewide, the median donation being $4,000 and the most common donation $1,000.

Holy Cross School in Champaign has nine scholarship recipients in its student body, eight of whom were funded by Empower Illinois.

Principal Joe McDaniel said he is "absolutely" concerned by Pritzker's opposition to Invest in Kids and hopes his plans to cut and end it "doesn't happen."

He said some Holy Cross families have "multiple students" receiving scholarships funded at 50 percent, 75 percent and 100 percent.

McDaniel said the school received $42,000 in scholarship money in the program's first year and "we hope we'll have a lot more donations by the end of this fiscal year."

Although Holy Cross is a Catholic school, McDaniel said, "we do have a lot of non-Catholic students."

It remains to be seen how the Democrat-controlled legislature will respond to Pritzker's plans. Legislative leaders — House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton — have traditionally been supportive of efforts to help Chicago's Catholic schools. But a Cullerton spokesman said recently that Cullerton won't lobby members of his Democratic caucus either way on the issue.

Meanwhile, Republicans, who are a superminority in the legislature, defend Invest in Kids both as a program that is working as intended and the product of a bipartisan compromise.

"I reminded (Pritzker) that a deal is a deal. (The program) is working," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin said, indicating that he will do "everything I can" to ensure the program remains unchanged.

Empower Illinois communications manager Emma Ciavarella embraced Durkin's position that the compromise should stand.

But Ciavarella also said that Pritzker should support Invest in Kids because it embodies two of his stated priorities — bipartisanship and quality education.

Further, she said, that "ending this program prematurely would leave thousands of families extremely vulnerable."

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.