High interest in scholarships

High interest in scholarships

Invest in Kids program drawing attention from both donors and families seeking better schools.

When Illinois' new Invest in Kids scholarship program started accepting donations in early January, the state's Revenue Department collected $36 million of the $100 million limit on the first day.

Donations have slowed down considerably since then, but now it's applications for private-school tuition grants that are overwhelming scholarship-granting organizations.

"We knew the demand for quality educational options was strong, but no one estimated the overwhelming statewide demand we saw," said Empower Illinois, one of the nine scholarship-granting organizations.

Empower Illinois said, "More than 24,000 families visited the application site within the first few minutes of its availability," a deluge that overwhelmed its computer system.

Here's the situation.

The state, so far, has received more than $45 million in contributions of the $100 million allotted by the Legislature.

Most of that — $36 million — comes from Cook County, one of five regions statewide that are authorized to collect percentage shares of the $100 million total.

Champaign and Vermilion are among the roughly 20 East Central Illinois counties that make up Region 4, an area that has allocated $7.5 million of the $100 million. So far, donors have pledged a little over $1 million, leaving another $6 million-plus on the table.

Here's how the program works.

A donor who contributes $10,000 in the 2018 tax year will receive a $7,500 tuition credit. Working through the Illinois Department of Revenue's online "Invest in Kids" program, the donor writes a check to the tuition-granting organization and can designate the private school the donor wishes to support.

From there, the tuition-granting organization accepts and reviews scholarship applications and makes the awards it believes are most appropriate.

Operated on a first-come, first-served program, the scholarship-granting organization gives preference to applicants with the greatest need.

Families can earn up to three times the poverty level and still qualify, meaning a family of four earning up to $73,300 can qualify.

The Invest in Kids program is a five-year experiment the Legislature included in its school financial reform bill passed last year. It's aimed at assisting needy students who wish to attend private schools — religious or otherwise.

The experiment will cost $75 million if donors contribute the maximum $100 million .

While cumbersome, the Illinois Revenue Department's online program is manageable. Donors are required to establish a "My Tax Illinois" account to receive approval to make a donation.

There is no question that some taxpayers resent the state underwriting the cost of private-school tuition. But at the same time, there's no question that there are public schools in this state, particularly in the Chicago area, that are failing to meet the needs of those families who want their children to get the best possible education, no matter whether it's in a private or public school.

This program is an effort to meet that demand by assisting private schools — and their students — whose existence helps reduce the costs of K-12 public schools in Illinois.

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