Supporters are rallying to protect Illinois’ tax-credit scholarship program.

Under the “Invest in Kids” program, a state tax credit is available to individuals or businesses for donations made to authorized organizations. Those organizations then use the money to fund tuition scholarships for eligible students to attend a school of their choice.

State Rep. Tom Demmer, R-Dixon,  says Gov. J.B. Pritzker has proposed nearly cutting the credit for the “Invest in Kids” program in half, from a 75% to a 40% credit, calling it a corporate loophole that should be closed.

“It's hard to understand how you can describe a tax credit scholarship program for low-income families as a corporate loophole,” Demmer said. “He's trying to lump it in with other items and hide the fact that this is really a program that benefits working class families across Illinois.”

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According to data provided by Empower Illinois, one of the scholarship granting organizations approved by the state, the program has awarded more than 20,000 scholarships and raised more than $167 million over the past three years.

“It's collected millions of dollars from donors to provide scholarships to children from low-income families to provide a new educational opportunity for families who might not otherwise be able to afford it,” Demmer said. “I think it shows this is a program families rely on, that they need, and it is genuinely providing opportunities that otherwise wouldn't be there.”

Empower Illinois reports more than 26,000 students are currently waiting in line for a scholarship. The number has grown since the start of the pandemic and officials expect more applications to roll in before the next deadline.

“Nearly 7,000 letters have been sent to elected officials from families, students, school leaders, and community members, including donors, since the Governor announced his proposed cuts,” said Anthony Holter, president of Empower Illinois. “Everyone is concerned. Families rely on tax credit scholarships to keep their kids in a school they love.”

The program was launched for an initial period of just five years. Demmer says there have been discussions about making it a more permanent part of the educational landscape.

“I do think there is an opportunity for legislators from both political parties, from the city of Chicago, from the suburbs, from downstate Illinois, to come together and try to find a way to at least protect this program, if not improve and expand it,” Demmer said.

“We work with great families, school, and community leaders, in a broad coalition that includes organized labor leaders, who all believe that during this challenging time, kids need more quality education options, not fewer,” Holter said in a statement. “Together, we will advocate to protect and extend the tax credit scholarship program for families seeking brighter futures for their students and defend the education opportunities that work best for kids.”

Demmer says the first step in the process is to push back on the Governor’s proposed budget cuts, which would weaken the program and potentially harm fundraising.

“Republicans in the general assembly have been strong supporters of protecting this program from the continued attempts by Governor Pritzker to undermine it,” Demmer said. “I think we will continue to stand up and speak on behalf of low-income families across Illinois who are looking for educational choice. This will be a priority for us to protect them.”

It’s not the first time the Governor has talked down the program, saying on the campaign trail in 2018, "we should as soon as possible do away with [Invest in Kids].” That leaves supporters wondering how much more successful the effort could be with the backing of state leaders.

“The push to promote this program has come from the families who have benefited from it,” Demmer said. “It comes from the schools who are providing these educational opportunities to students across Illinois. And it really has come from people who, I think, care about having a more robust education system in Illinois, one that provides people with options.”

(Copyright WBGZ Radio / www.AltonDailyNews.com)