When adults play politics, children lose.

By Nancy Gianni and Tiffany Barfield

May 23, 2023

Lawmakers in Illinois are about to take a definitive stand on whether parents deserve to choose the school that works best for their child, and whether low-income and working-class families are worthy of that privilege.

As legislative leaders and the governor consider the fate of the Invest in Kids Act—a name now drenched in irony—they need to know that parents all over the state are nervously waiting and watching to see who will stand up for students, especially the most vulnerable of them.

Just ask the parents of children with special learning needs, like autism, Down syndrome, and learning disorders, who face significant challenges when it comes to accessing quality education for their children. Often, they are left with limited, inflexible, and substandard public-school options that don’t allow these children to become all they are meant to be.

Yes, disabilities and learning disorders are challenges, but they are not excuses. Rather than focusing on the negative of disabilities, we believe that every child—no matter their challenges—have unique abilities.

For some kids, identifying and building on these unique abilities is the key to ensuring they have the basic life skills to overcome their challenges and enjoy a fulfilled life. Schools that work well for kids with special learning needs have a culture of high expectations.

These schools hire educators who believe that all children, whether they have a disability or not, can learn and grow. For these great schools, they don’t care whether a student is living with Down syndrome or autism. It does not matter if their genius is challenged by dyslexia or any other learning disorder. Some say it is not realistic to ask special education programs to have rigorous standards for children with disabilities. But nothing could be further from the truth; we must reject the soft bigotry of low expectations for children with unique abilities.

When parents of financial means encounter this service failure in public schools, they pack up and move to another, better public school district or pay for tuition at a private school willing to serve the unique needs of kids. But not every parent has that privilege. That is why the Invest in Kids Act has been a game changer. In 2017, this groundbreaking legislation was created to support low-income parents who struggle to afford private school for their children. The program, funded by generous donors who receive a state tax credit of 75 cents on every dollar donated, provides equal access to quality education. Over the years, the program has made a significant impact, awarding more than 40,000 scholarships totaling over $330 million.

What’s lesser known is that 1 in 9 children who receive a tax credit scholarship has a unique ability.

For the past 5 years, these families have relied on the Invest in Kids Act to help level the playing field. Private secular schools and Catholic schools—in Chicago and statewide—have opened their hearts and doors to serving children with unique abilities as part of this successful program.

We believe that children with special needs only get one chance at a quality education. It is alarming and unacceptable that Governor Pritzker, Speaker Chris Welch, and Senate President Don Harmon would even consider terminating this program. It would immediately push thousands of children with special needs out of the very schools where they are now thriving.

The Invest in Kids Act is set to expire unless these political leaders quickly become education champions and save the program by removing the sunset. It’s that simple. We ask them to talk with us; to hear the stories of the children who benefit from the tax credit scholarship program.

Either they will listen and stand up for children with unique abilities or they won’t.


Nancy Gianni is founder and chief belief officer at GiGi’s Playhouse. Tiffany Barfield is the Chairwoman of the National Down Syndrome Society. They both serve on the board of directors for One Chance Illinois, a nonprofit working to ensure Illinois’s children get the education they need and deserve.

Comments 15

  1. I work for Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens as a job coach. Thank God Indiana public schools care enough to prepare these wonderful youngsters for jobs beyond high school. Local business leaders in LaPorte help prepare vulnerable young people prepare for the future: Al’s Grocery, Little Chocolates, Winndeavor Precision Machine works, LaPorte Animal Shelter, Downtown Delights, Church of God and Casey’s Lanes.

    1. Good for you Pat, you’re doing great work with those young people. It seems to me that the difference between Dem public union ruled bastions like Illinois and Indiana is that the unions and the pols see public service as a grift, where in Indiana, they have priorities and steer the taxpayers hard earned dollars in as efficient manner as possible to do the most good.

      The public schools, particularly in Chicago and Cook County suburbs, jobs and power and perks first, where in Indiana, they identify needs and seek solutions that provide public benefit. How does Illinois bloated, redundant, inefficient government provide public benefit, particularly to those who pay the inflated sales and property taxes? I don’t see it.

      To top it all off, CPS has positions that cannot even fill in hellish, undisciplined, amoral buildings run by a corrupt system and union and school district that could not care less for the students or the safety and well being of the staff for that matter.

      Pat, 50 grand a year to start, with generous benefits, insurance, pension, SUMMER OFF! And they cannot find people to stay and work with those kids! Can you imagine how awful the environment must be in these places? And the pols fall over themselves to give them more and more money even as outcomes become worse and worse.

      As Kass has said, “A mom should be able to send her son to Leo High School.” How cold and person in a position of power and authority not want to throw a kid a lifeline and let him go to a safe environment where learning and character are emphasized over amorality and sin? Answer? They don’t care about the kids, the parents, or anyone else.

      Think about that. It’s the same with the CPD. Great pay and bennies, and they cannot fill all the slots.

      Jesus is not God anymore, it’s money and power and greed. At least to some people. I’m not even religious and I can see the benefit an institution like Leo HS provides to the community. How can we support schools where less than 10% of the kids can read at grade level over places like Leo, religious or not?

  2. Many of us have heard of Lambs Farm in Libertyville (Rt 176/Tri State. Served many kids and young adults so well. But for all the other kids in all the school districts in Illinois this Invest in Kids program did excellent. It allows “choice” the word so dirty to the teachers unions esp CTU. If there was choice and kids who could go to private/parochial schools continue to thrive the CTU teachers might jus have to TEACH!
    I have a child who fortunately resides in a great suburban district and got a lot of services grieving up. Yet we also spent much $ on outside help. Today he holds down a job and is a productive member of society. We are fortunate.

  3. Theses same politicians have no problem spending large sums of money on services for the illegals coming to Illinois but don’t want to take care of of CITIZEN children.

  4. Thank you Ms. Gianni and Ms. Barfield for an excellent column.

    All good points. Unfortunately politicians tend to serve those who butter their daily bread (I.E. $$). To the politician, the mere thought that parents could escape the public school death spiral by choosing the best school for their child is unacceptable. For the politician how they look at their worth is through how much they can tax and spend; keeping their real political masters happy (I.E. $$). They could care less in providing good results for voters, parents and children.

    Unless you can spread a couple of million around for their re-election campaigns, I doubt they will even listen.

  5. Unfortunately, I think the politicians who would let this program sunset have an alternative they do not wish to tell you.
    State funded abortion
    Difficult for me to write this

  6. Too bad that the folks who really should be reading this article and considering it are likely not going to see it. Doubt there are many of the “decision-makers” who would like to have ANY holes poked in their well-entrenched way to keep control of the city. Why should they change or enhance a system that continues to provide them with an unending flow of people who are not taught to think for themselves, and who aren’t taught that there is a way to make their own life better. The ONLY way the currently in-place system can sustain itself is to have the people feel like they are totally dependent upon ‘the government’ to live.

    This is not only applicable to the little ones in the Chicago Public Schools – – – it stretches into colleges, too. We heard plenty of that this week. Joe Biden’s graduation message to the gathered graduates at Howard University was, more than anything, his recitation/reminder to them of how badly they continue to be victimized; a real message of doom and gloom unless you allow “us” to take care of “you”! In 2016, Justice Clarence Thomas addressed the graduates at Hillsdale College in Michigan. It was a soaring, empowering, encouraging, wonderful speech to listen to, whether you went to Hillsdale or not! That VERY same year, Mrs. Obama gave two graduation speeches, one at CUNY and one in Jackson, Miss. The contrast between the messages she delivered and the one from Clarence Thomas are absolutely stunning to compare! But, how instructive they are as to the two different approaches to encouraging their hearers.

    The message in CPS is “You can’t, so we will!!” There is simply NO incentive for CPS and the teachers’ union to change! NONE! Why should they? They’re riding a cash cow of staggering proportion, and they ‘ve got the parents convinced that is all that they can do.

    I might add one other thought: “Private secular schools and Catholic schools—in Chicago and statewide—have opened their hearts and doors to serving children with unique abilities as part of this successful program.” – – – there are many private schools that are neither secular nor Catholic. There are other church-run schools that are absolutely top-shelf when it comes to educating a wide range of kids. As respected as the Catholic schools are, they don’t own the genre. Example? Timothy Christian in Elmhurst – educating kids from over 130 different churches, kids from as far away as Naperville and all the way deep into the city are getting a 1st class education in a school (K-12, over 1200 kids) that, despite Governor Pritzker’s best efforts, never shut down for one day through Covid! Those kids stayed in school, the teachers showed up and taught EVERY day, and their test-scores are showing it! ….and yes, they’re educating Chris Welch’s kids!

    It can be done, but until we hold the ‘system’ accountable for destroying the kids in order to control the cash, it will never change.

    1. I agree with everything you have stated here. We were fortunate to be able to send our children to Catholic grade school and now our grandkids.

      Timothy does a fantastic job educating their kids, but it is super expensive. The state would love to see these private Christian schools go under. These kids aren’t being indoctrinated like they should be!

      There is never going to be accountability for the public teacher unions. I feel like it is good vs. evil.

      1. Yes, Timothy is expensive for those who can afford to pay to educate their children. They also have a massive endowment fund that offers wonderful assistance to parents of every faith, nationality, race or place of residence.

    2. You used Justice Thomas as an example of what’s right? Have you read the news lately, lady? He’s a crook just like the ones here in Illinois. Surely, you could of used a better example. Thomas ??! I can’t believe it.

      1. Well, how about you provide us with a copy of the commencement speech you offered to any of the colleges around here (or any college!) Sad that you think Mr. Justice Thomas is so beneath you….I’m waiting to hear your opinion of some of the other Justices. Do you only speak with derision about a black man who has become a success? You probably don’t like Dr. Ben Carson either, or any of the others on a list of Achieving Americans. Sorry for ya.

  7. Children cannot be indoctrinated with socialism if they aren’t in the public school system.

    Remember when the schools stopped teaching handwriting? Now we have teens who can’t even sign their name to a document. The schools claimed there wasn’t enough time in the day to teach cursive. But there is plenty of time for pronouns and gender affirmation. Reading and math?…who needs ‘em!

    In my mind, teachers unions need to show significant test score improvements to prove to the citizenry that their schools are succeeding in actually teaching students what’s needed to thrive as working adults. Who is going to fill any high tech jobs that might think of coming to Illinois? There won’t be a workforce for these companies.

    And why does the state keep funding (through our high property taxes) failed schools? why is choice such a bad thing? The fact that kids with autism and downs are going to be negatively affected by this makes me even more irritated. I feel like the Illinois democrats who control this state are heartless, and quite frankly, I can’t understand how voters keep giving them their votes.

  8. I have had three careers. Military, Sales and Teaching. The most exciting was military because I was on the Soviet border for over three years peering into the Soviet military from listening posts all over the world. But, the most full filling was teaching. It is so exciting when you are teaching a concept and a student will say, “Oh, I get it” Nothing is so rewarding in teaching as that moment.

    Now, and I am retired, I look at the website of schools and they proudly proclaim, we are all into Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Translated, we have dumbed down the curriculum so everyone passes and many cannot pronounce words, write their name or tell time. Our education system has become the worlds greatest proponent of issuing participation ribbons. You all know what they call the person who finishes at the bottom of their medical class? Doctor!

    Our leaders in Springfield must eliminate the sunset provision in the Kids act so those special students receive the help they need. They are so gifted in many ways. The teachers just need the resources to discover those gifts and promote them in every way.

  9. It all comes down to one thing: Our tax dollars should allow parents to fund whatever school they believe is best for their child. Period.

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