Year two of a controversial taxpayer-funded private school scholarship program kicks off for most families on Tuesday, and one of the most important things to know is that there is no line.
That means the nearly 5,500 students who received scholarships through Empower Illinois for the current school year have to apply again. Their status as current scholarship recipients will not guarantee them funds, officials said Monday. They will be given a priority along with applications from families living at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($45,510 for a family of four), those living in poorly performing school districts and siblings of those already receiving a scholarship.
That means families who didn't get a scholarship last year are encouraged to try again, especially if they meet the income requirements or live in one of the state's focus districts. There are 88 such districts in the state.
"Everything resets this year," said Empower Illinois executive director Anthony Holter. "There is no expected guarantee year-over-year. That's just not built into the legislation. ... So every year, the line resets.
Several nonprofits are awarding scholarships through the state's new Invest in Kids program. Empower Illinois is the largest scholarship granting organization, working with about 85 percent of the state's private schools.
Invest in Kids is off to a slow start on the fundraising side. This time last year, more than $41 million had been pledged. This year, Invest in Kids — which offers 75 cents on the dollar in income tax credits to individuals and businesses that make a donation — has about $8.2 million in its coffers.
Scholarships are dependent on availability of funds.
"We're very excited about year two," Holter said. "We certainly learned a lot in year one."
Empower's first attempt at collecting applications in January last year came to an abrupt halt because of technical difficulties. A February relaunch went smoothly, and the organization planned to use the same technology Tuesday.
Empower was expecting to see about 45,000 visits to its website Tuesday night.
Invest in Kids was praised by private schools and scholarship winners and criticized by those who opposed the use of public funds to support private schools. Those critics included Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who spoke against the program on the campaign trail, saying he would work to put an end to it. His opponent Bruce Rauner wanted to see it expand. The program currently has a $100 million cap.
State Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, said he's "cautiously optimistic that rational heads prevail," and the program is allowed to at least complete its five-year pilot.
Sosnowski also works as director of institutional advancement for Rockford Christian Schools, one of several area schools whose students received scholarships this year.
"Hopefully, the program will be allowed to continue," Sosnowski said, "By that time, hopefully people will see the value in it."
This year's fundraising efforts likely are taking a hit because of statements on the campaign trail, Sosnowski said. "I'm sure that's caused some uncertainty."
Corina Curry: 815-987-1371; email@example.com; @corinacurry