Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Chicago) held a town hall in the packed Brookfield Village Hall council chamber last week that was attended by approximately 100 people. Garica has been making more appearances in the western suburbs since his 4th Congressional District was redistricted in 2021.
Garcia invited the four state legislators: State Senators Javier Cervantes (D-Chicago) and Mike Porfirio (D-LaGrange) and State Reps. Abdelnasser Rashid (D-Bridgeview) and Elizabeth “Lisa” Hernandez (D- Cicero), who represent parts of Brookfield to join him.
The town hall was mostly unremarkable with the office holders generally repeating familiar talking points and answering questions that had been submitted prior to the town hall. The most interesting point of the gathering came at the end when Garcia called upon the elected officials to make closing statements.
One woman sitting in the front row rose to ask a question. Enriqueta Alvarez, like about 25 others wearing a T-shirt that said “Remove the Sunset” and “Save my Scholarship,” made a lengthy statement and appeal in Spanish to the state legislators to preserve the state’s Invest in Kids tax credit and scholarship program which allows those who donate to organizations that give scholarships to those who attend K-12 private or parochial schools to take get a 75% tax credit on their state income tax for their donation. The tax credit will disappear unless the General Assembly passes a bill extending it in the Fall Veto Session and Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs it.
Pritzker has been on varying sides of the issue saying he opposed the program in his first campaign for governor in 2018, indicating during his reelection campaign last year that he was open to extending the program and then this summer suggesting he is OK with letting it die.
In an interview after the town hall meeting Alvarez, a Cicero resident who has a child who attends Our Lady of Charity Catholic School in Cicero, said that in her appeal, she noted that people are struggling with high prices and that she and other parents need the program to continue to keep their kids in the schools they attend.
“We really need for the state to help us,” Alvarez said. “We need it right now.”
Lucia Guzman of Cicero, whose son is an eighth grader at St. Francis of Rome Catholic School in Cicero, said she is a single parent and her son’s scholarship covers the full cost of tuition at St. Francis of Rome.
“If this program ended, I might have to take my son out of the school which would be a really drastic change because he’s always been in that school,” Guzman said.
The Invest in Kids program was championed by former Governor Bruce Rauner. It was created in 2017 and is due to end at the end of this year unless extended by the Illinois General Assembly. The General Assembly took no action to extend the program in its Spring Session. Families with K-12 students are eligible to receive scholarships issued by what is called a scholarship granting organization if they have a child attending a private or parochial school and their family income is less than 300% of the federal poverty level when they apply to the program and less than 400% of the poverty level when they are receiving the scholarship.
According to Empower Illinois, a scholarship granting organization and a major advocate for the program that helped organize the parents who attended the town hall, 9,656 scholarships were awarded in 2022 and the average scholarship amount was $6,579. Empower Illinois says the average income of a family receiving a scholarship is $45,000. To be eligible for a full scholarship a family can earn no more than 185% of the federal poverty level.
The tax credit program has been controversial with critics saying that it reduces funding of public schools by draining tax revenue from the state and is a state subsidy for religious and private schools.
Rashid said in a telephone interview after the town hall that he opposes continuing the tax credit.
“We have a long way to go before our public schools are sufficiently funded and the lack of sufficient funding for public education not only leads to inequities in education but it also leads to higher property taxes,” said Rashid, who himself attended a private Islamic school.
“I respect every parents decision in terms of their own children’s education, but when it comes to public funding of education our job, first and foremost, is to make sure that every student in our state is able to access quality public schools,” Rashid said. “That’s just the reality of where we’re at. We need to make sure that we’re funding public education, both to make our public schools stronger and to bring down property taxes.”
State Senators Cervantes and Porfirio indicated they are open to a compromise on the issue.
“The Invest in Kids Scholarship does not sunset until the end of the year,” Porfirio said in an emailed statement. “As a General Assembly, we intend to review its future during the fall veto session. I remain committed that we must ensure that every student in Illinois gets the quality education they deserve. I will thoroughly review any education-related legislation that comes across my desk.”
Cervantes said that he is looking for a compromise.
“Sometimes the best deals are the ones when both sides are not happy,” Cervantes said.
Cervantes said he is aware of the arguments on both sides of the issue.
“We just have to figure it out, it’s a real issue and we just can’t let it go” Cervantes said. “I do feel we do have to figure out how to modify it because of course I understand too that we have to fund our public schools.”
Hernandez, who is a Deputy Majority Leader in the state House of Representatives and the chairwoman of the Illinois Democratic Party, did not respond to a call to her district office or an email from the Landmark.
State Senate President Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) said that he expects the General Assembly will discuss the issue in the Fall Veto Session.
“We are well aware that the program sunsets on Dec. 31 of this year,” Harmon told the Landmark. “There is no clear consensus within the General Assembly as to what to do, but conversations are continuing and I expect that they will continue in earnest through the fall session.”
Cervantes noted he is the son of a single parent and that he attended both Catholic and public schools growing up and once was the beneficiary of a scholarship from the Chicago Archdiocese’s Big Shoulders Fund. He said he wants to do something to help parents such as Alvarez and Guzman.
“We can’t leave these families behind either,” Cervantes said. “They’re struggling to make ends meet and they really want to keep their children in these schools. How can we ignore that.”