By Alissa McCurley Vogel, Government Affairs Director, Empower Illinois
Kids only get one chance at a quality education, and when it came to defending their opportunities, Illinois advocates answered the call.
In February, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker announced in his state budget proposal plans for a 50 percent cut and premature phase out of the Invest in Kids Act, Illinois’ Tax Credit Scholarship program. The Invest in Kids Act passed in 2017 as part of a balanced, bipartisan compromise to provide better equity in Illinois education. The Act established landmark school finance reform for public schools and provided more equitable access to quality, private school options. This year’s budget proposal threatened more than 43,000 kids in line for a scholarship, jeopardized all 7,178 recipients from last year, and immediately denied at least 742 current recipients the chance at a better future.
By May, the Invest in Kids Act was the only proposed cut in the entire multi-billion-dollar state budget. So, with the odds stacked against the program, how did a group of parents, grandparents, foster parents, educators, students, school leaders, and community advocates succeed? Three key strategies helped make their win possible:
Organized the TCS Community
Faced with the threat of an attempt to phase out the Tax Credit Scholarship program, Empower Illinois, under the #SaveMyScholarship banner, led this grassroots coalition to fight back against an effort to end the TCS program—and they won!
For over a month, staff recruited, trained, and empowered daily trips of this coalition—all wearing blue #SaveMyScholarship shirts to Springfield—maintaining a consistent presence in the Capitol.
Ultimately the coalition, representing 146 schools from across the state, ended up visiting 120 elected officials, or nearly 70 percent of Illinois’ General Assembly. They reminded legislators that real families, kids, and schools will feel the consequences of their votes. Most legislators truly wish to be the voice of their community, but if constituents do not raise their concerns, we cannot hold our elected officials accountable.
Created Alternative Engagement Opportunities
The ground game, was also supported by air—on top of earned media, staff implemented an aggressive phone-to-action campaign. Empower Illinois’ partners, including more than 400 schools and parents of over 43,000 children, received an email, text, or phone call asking families to contact their legislators—and they responded. Many thousands of phone calls and emails went out to legislators urging them to protect the life-changing scholarships.
The air campaign was complemented by the support of allies in the construction trade unions, which Empower Illinois has a long history of working with. Drawing on support the trade unions offered during the passage of the original legislation, our allies in labor were there once again. In addition to a solid base of Republican champions of tax credit scholarship policy, the pro-private-trade-union, pro-equity nature of the campaign helped win over key Democratic champions and ensure a bipartisan support base.
Focused on Stories
Whether on the air or the ground, community voices are the most powerful and have the unique ability to cut through partisanship and budget figures right to the heart of the matter: kids’ education. Parents, grandparents, and guardians’ greatest power is their story. No one else has lived that experience but them.
Only they know how big of an impact a Tax Credit Scholarship has had on their children, their families, their household. Encourage your community to express personal opinions. Every voice matters!
Empower Illinois, and the families, students, schools, and communities with whom we work, are excited that the Invest in Kids Act remains intact. With support from General Assembly leaders, Governor Pritzker, and many legislative champions, Illinois’ kids can continue to count on quality education options, whether public or private.