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.