Friday, November 17, 2023

Invest in Kids Illinois Scholarship Program will End December 31

Though legislation was proposed to extend the sunset date of the Invest in Kids Act, which provides tax credits to donors who provide scholarships to lower income families to attend non-public schools, the legislature did not take up the proposal, effectively ending the program on December 31.  This was not a partisan political issue, it had support from legislators on both sides of the aisle, and the governor had agreed to sign the renewal.  But it fell victim to politics being played in spite of the fact that enough legislative support existed to pass it.  

The biggest opposition, especially during the veto session, came from public teacher's unions who used financial support to legislator's re-election campaigns, along with press releases, to put out false information about the program.  For your information, if the bill ever gets reintroduced, these points correct the falsehoods used to help keep Invest in Kids from being renewed: 
  • This is not a "voucher" program.  It is a tax credit program which allows private donors to contribute money to a private school's scholarship program and receive a credit on their Illinois taxes, in the same way that big corporations get tax credits for development projects and big donors to projects favored by certain politicians get for their contributions.
  • Not a single penny of public funds goes to any religious-based private schools out of the state budget under Invest in Kids.  It is funded by private donors, not tax dollars.  
  • Money is not being taken away from public schools and given to private schools through this program.  The state's very healthy budget for public education, which has grown every year that Invest in Kids has been in operation, in spite of declining enrollment and academic performance, does not provide one red cent for private, religious-based schools.  
  • ISBE did not release test information regarding Invest in Kids Scholarship Recipients, prior to the veto session, so the claim that academic results were "inconclusive" is inaccurate.  That info has been available to the schools for a while now. Out of the group of students at MCA on scholarships who took the testing, 100% were proficient in math and language skills, compared to fewer than 30% of students statewide in Illinois public schools.  That seems like money well spent, as far as the scholarship donors are concerned.
Invest in Kids was not the only solution to the educational woes currently being experienced by Illinois public schools.  It is a relatively small program.  However, it was one of several effective solutions to the academic and social problems educators and administrators in Illinois admit they are experiencing.  Every student enrolled in a private school, with private donor dollars, saves expense to the public school system.  In Chicago, where per-student cost per year is now $30,000, that makes the tax credits a bargain.  By the way, we can provide for four students per year for what CPS needs for one.  Every student enrolled in a private school helps relieve overcrowding in schools where 40 students in a room is normal.

As far as academic achievement goes, while waiting for ISBE to release the test results from students who were on the scholarship, we already know that the students at MCA were 100% proficient in the core subjects tested.  I am certain, from prior experience, that the scores achieved in other private schools by students who were on these scholarships exceeded expectations and requirements by a significant margin.  These are students that come from the same population as those in public school.    

This is a Wake-up Call for Evangelical Christian School Education
Over the course of a lifetime, I've seen politicians use education as a political football.  We've seen some massive waste, some incredible boondoggles and some of the most absurd ideas and practices come out of a system in which legislators, not educators, have control.  Many states, including Illinois, are still handing out tax dollars by the billions to systems of charter schools which, by measurable academic standards, are miserable failures in meeting even the minimum standards while taking tax money directly from public schools.  In some states, these schools are operated by for profit companies, taking tax dollars from their budgets to pay dividends to stockholders instead of using the funds for teacher salaries or educational needs.    

At MCA, we view Christian schools as a ministry provided by the church, based on a philosophy of education from the Christian gospel.  Education is a ministry function of the church, commissioned, defined and outlined by Jesus himself, as well as by the early church apostles.  To use a biblical analogy, based on Jesus' words in Matthew 22:21, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's," if we really believe that our Christian schools are a ministry of the church, we should not expect the "emperor," or the state in our case, to fund them, nor to have any authority over the way they are operated or the content of the curriculum.   

We should not be depending on the emperor, to use the biblical analogy, to pay our ministry bills.  And while the Invest in Kids Act in Illinois was not taking tax dollars from public education and giving it to private schools, the fact that politicians were willing to jerk the rug out from underneath almost 10,000 students who were depending on it is a sign of what can, and very likely will, happen with voucher programs that do give tax money to private schools.  The fact of the matter is that has already happened.  And as voucher programs continue to operate, Ohio and Indiana serving as nearby examples, changes in the legislature mean changes in the program participation requirements.  Christian schools must alter their alignment with the Christian gospel in order to meet conditions imposed for continuing to receive tax dollars on which the schools have become dependent.  

It's time for Christians to realize that Christian schools are a valid, viable, and effective discipleship ministry of the church, and to stop depending on parents of children alone to fund them with tuition dollars.  Only families with incomes that are among the top 20% can afford private school tuition, which keeps this opportunity out of the hands of the majority of the church's own membership.  Vouchers will only lead to the inability of a private, Christian school to fulfill a distinctively Christian mission and purpose.  

Tax credit scholarship programs do not use public money for private schools.  States give tax credits for all kinds of interests, mainly business development, but there are multiple examples of tax credits which support a variety of community programs too, especially those that operate among underserved populations.  The principle is the same as tax deductions, and there's no violation of the first amendment's establishment clause.  Nor should there be any violation of either the donor's or the school's first amendment religious freedom.  And a combination of donor support, along with church budget for schools as a ministry, would be an effective combination for making Christian schools affordable to all students whose families choose them as a viable option to public education.  And they should have a choice.  

But vouchers are not the answer.  

The Quakers, a relatively small group compared to larger denominations and branches of Evangelical Christianity in America, successfully finance a system of schools, most of which take kids from low income, high poverty neighborhoods in the inner cities and successfully educate them and prepare them for college, along with earning scholarships to provide for it.  A combination of funding from individual Quaker meetings, and individual contributions, underwrites school expenses.  The Catholic Church considers its diocesan and parish schools as its Christian Education Ministry, which receives a significant portion of the church's overall ministry budget.  Though costs have increased, and fewer nuns and priests are available to teach, the scholarships and financial aid provided to church members' children, along with the lower costs in their schools, make it financially feasible for most Catholic families to provide a church-based education for their children.  

Evangelical Christians in America owe more money on debt and interest on facilities that sit empty for the greater part of each week, than the combined budgets of the Christian schools in this country.  So the resources are there to provide Christian education as a ministry of the church to its families.  What's missing is the will to do it. But I think the time has come for the churches and denominations that make up the majority of the constituency of private, Evangelical Christian schools to support this ministry as part of their own. 

No matter what the rules are, or how supportive a state legislature may appear, voucher programs using public funds, for which there is public accountability, take away the independence and autonomy of a Christian school, elements which are essential to its ability to remain true to its Christian distinctives.  The time has come for the church to acknowledge the success of Christian school education in providing Christian discipleship and a quality academic education to its students, and make a way for all parents to have this choice available to them.  

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