Illinois’s ignominious first could uproot thousands of scholarship students

Barring a Hail Mary this spring, Illinois’s five-year run as a blue-state bastion of educational options will end after the current school year.

This is the first defeat of its kind in the modern era of the private school choice movement.

Historically, once programs get going, they become hard to dislodge. Democrats took over the Nevada Legislature in 2016 and smothered the Silver State’s first-in-the-nation universal education savings account before it could serve a single student.

But until now, scholarship programs that survived long enough to enroll actual students (and thus build a base of families and educators prepared to fight for their existence) have endured changes in partisan control of state legislatures, governorships or state education departments in states like Wisconsin, Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona.

Illinois’ program, improbably negotiated into existence by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in a deal that overhauled the state’s funding formula and gave a financial boost to Chicago Public Schools, carried a fatal flaw: a five-year sunset clause that required state lawmakers to renew it.

A majority of legislative Democrats in Springfield blocked a bipartisan coalition that sought to preserve scholarships for approximately 9,600 students.

The program was carefully targeted to reach the students with the greatest needs. It served families with average household incomes of about $45,000, and nearly two-thirds of scholarship recipients in the Chicagoland area were from families of color.

It’s hard to imagine a program with more stringent academic oversight. In a rarity for scholarship programs funded through tax-credited donations, students using Illinois’s Invest in Kids scholarships have been required to take the same state tests as public-school students, though the pandemic disrupted state testing for most of the program’s short life, so the first report on their scores won’t be available until next year.

It’s also hard to imagine a more capable coalition of supporters than Empower Illinois and the bipartisan legislative coalition that rallied around the program. They crafted a compromise proposal that would have lowered the cap on tax credits to $50 million from the current $75 million and tightened eligibility.

This helps explain the movement’s current strategy in red and purple states: big, bold and broad. The only thing that can save a politically embattled program is an army of voting parents large and diverse and influential enough to scare politicians who might vote to the end it (or, as in this case, simply decline to save it).

There’s still hope in Illinois. Local media report supporters of the program, including Senate Republican leader John Curran, say they will return to Springfield “ready to fight for these life-changing scholarships” in the spring. But it will be an uphill battle to prevent the uprooting of thousands of students who rely on the scholarships in an ignominious first.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)

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