Illinois Families Deserve Access to School Choice

January 26 – February 1 is National School Choice Week. Families with children currently in private school, as well as those seeking affordable alternatives, have a lot at stake right now, with a pending U.S. Supreme Court case hanging in the balance that could reshape the national landscape on school choice.

The Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in a case that could limit your ability to pick the school that’s right for your children. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, a group of parents is challenging the state’s decision to exclude religious schools from a scholarship program.

When the Montana legislature created the program in 2015, it allowed parents to use scholarship funds at any qualified private school. To encourage donations, taxpayers would receive a modest tax credit of $150 per year for donations to the scholarship-granting organization.

But then, the state enacted a rule excluding religious schools, citing the state constitution’s prohibition on public funds aiding such institutions. Parents who relied on the scholarships to send their kids to religious schools sued, and the Montana Supreme Court struck down the scholarship program in its entirety.

At the U.S. Supreme Court, the shadow of Sen. James Blaine loomed large. He was the architect of a failed constitutional amendment at the federal level in the late 1800s that sought to prohibit public funds from aiding schools associated with a particular faith or belief system.

Although his federal amendment failed, many states later adopted parts of the  Blaine amendments. These amendments often thwart present-day school choice efforts, as more and more states explore initiatives to enable families to direct their children’s education funding.

Should the Supreme Court rule that existing Blaine amendments are unconstitutional, states would be able to establish a tax credit scholarship program like we have here in Illinois or other school choice initiatives that meet the needs of families in their state. It would not, as school choice opponents assert, open the floodgates to allow public funds to flow to private schools.

Illinois’ Tax Credit Scholarship Program is currently in its third year. The Invest in Kids tax credit scholarship program was created in 2017 to benefit children whose educational options are limited by household income. The Act established a five-year, pilot tax credit scholarship program providing up to $100 million in scholarships for children from low-income and working-class families in Illinois. The tax credit scholarship program is funded through private donations, and donors are eligible for a 75 percent tax credit.

Invest in Kids continues to expand quality education options for low-income and working-class families. More than 42,000 students and families applied for a scholarship for the Fall 2019-Spring 2020 school year across Illinois and only about 6,000 were awarded based on funds. These numbers show a strong demand for school choice.

With this being National School Choice Week, it’s more important than ever to allow families and students to have choice in which education suits them best.