Parents, teachers and other school choice advocates are roaming the halls of the state Capitol building during the final weeks of session, talking to any lawmaker who will listen about how the Invest in Kids scholarship program is helping put students in schools that allow them to thrive.

Invest in Kids is a five-year pilot program created in 2017 to help lower-income families send their child or children to a private school they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford.

The school choice initiative was supported by former Gov. Bruce Rauner and other Republicans. It essentially was a sweetener agreed by legislative Democrats to garner support for a massive education funding reform measure that, among many other things, bailed out Chicago Public Schools.

Less than two years into the five-year plan, however, the school choice program is in danger of being shut down — despite its massive popularity — because Gov. J.B. Pritzker and many Democratic lawmakers don't support it.

The scholarship program is funded by private donors who receive a 75 percent tax credit for every dollar contributed. About $61 million was donated in the first year alone.

Empower Illinois, one of the scholarship-granting organizations, said that nearly 5,500 students received scholarships in the program's inaugural year. The majority were non-white minority students from families whose average income was $35,371.

Unfortunately, more than 60,000 students applied, but there wasn't enough money to fund scholarships for all of them.

Tax credits are capped at $100 million, but Pritzker's fiscal year 2020 budget proposal would cut that amount in half and not allow new students to apply for scholarships. The program would then be phased out in coming years.

If lawmakers agree and Pritzker gets his way, it would be another broken promise from Springfield. For thousands of families who want better for their children and want an option other than their failing public school, it would be the elimination that choice.

It also serves as evidence that taxpayers shouldn't trust what they're being told by folks at the state Capitol.

As Invest in Kids families are fighting to keep the school choice program alive, Pritzker is fighting for a progressive income tax system that is being sold as having virtually no impact on the vast majority of Illinoisans.

A House committee is scheduled to begin debate soon on a package of bills that ultimately would ask voters to change the state constitution to allow for higher income tax rates on higher wage earners.

While already passed by the Senate, the progressive tax amendment is a tougher sell in the House. To help garner more support, sweeteners were added just last week.

The package of bills includes a measure that would eliminate Illinois' estate tax, also known as a death tax — an initiative that Republicans have been trying to implement for years. It also includes a bill that would freeze property taxes, if certain conditions are met. Illinoisans pay the second-highest property tax rates in the country, so any mention of a possible freeze is bound to perk homeowners' ears.

And then there are the proposed progressive rates. Per Pritzker's sales pitch, 97 percent of taxpayers would see no income tax hike under the initial schedule proposed by the Senate.

But if the legislature is successful in getting a constitutional amendment question on the ballot, and if voters do agree to allow for a progressive income tax system, those rates could be changed at any time by legislative act. Voters wouldn't get a direct say in decisions about future rates.

And like what's being proposed with phasing out the school choice scholarship program, lawmakers could later renege on the repeal of an estate tax or a promised property tax freeze.

Promises fade as circumstances change. The question taxpayers need to ask themselves is, Do you trust Pritzker and the state legislature to keep their promises this time around?

The answer to that is they shouldn't.

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Dan McCaleb is news director of Illinois News Network, a project of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a non-profit media company dedicated to the principles of transparency, accountability and fiscal responsibility. His columns include his own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of The Southern. Contact Dan at dmccaleb@ilnews.org.



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