ILLINOIS (WCIA) — Low income families which won scholarships to attend private schools under the state’s 2017 Invest In Kids Act are pleading with Governor J.B. Pritzker not to end the program.

The controversial measure provides state level tax credits to wealthy donors who provide scholarship funds for poor children in underperforming school districts to attend private schools. While the program does not rely on state funding or vouchers, the tax credits do create a revenue shortfall in the state budget.

The controversial program also incentivizes some students to leave public schools, which could ultimately result in lower state-level payments to the district under a funding formula which was revised to make sure the dollars follow the students.

10-year old Emmorie Bland attends St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Springfield on the scholarship program.

She said, “When I first came here, like when I first first came here, I didn’t really do good in any of the subjects. But then since I came here again, I got better and better. Now, I’m getting A’s and B’s.”

Her mother, Jasmine Bland, says the scholarship meant she could afford to put her son in little league baseball and her daughter in dance class.

“I work crazy hours,” Bland said, adding she’s a single mother. “So sometimes my kids are the ones they kind of forget about. I don’t have that here. They actually work with me and my crazy work schedule to make sure my kids still get to enjoy and participate in all of the things.

Bland says her 7-year old son’s first experience playing baseball gave her a chance to help him “Learn all about who Jackie Robinson was because he wouldn’t be able to play baseball if it wasn’t for that man right there. Same thing for me and others like me. We just want our kids to have a fair shake to live better than what we have and just have a good life. Or at least a chance at it.”

“This year they got full rides, so I was like super excited,” she said Tuesday morning as she dropped her kids off for school. “But then literally like three days later, I hear that [Pritzker]’s trying to get rid of the program that made me so excited and caused so much joy. I’m like, ‘Why would he want to do that?’ There’s so many more moms like me. We all live in this community. We’re single. We bust our butts and are busting our butts trying to go to work. I already work too many hours as is to not make enough money. Why do you want to make it more difficult on us for our kids to have the same chance? Whether you want to believe it or not, it is a difference. And without programs like this, my kids just don’t have a chance.”

Bland described obstacles she encountered when her children were enrolled in public school. 

“The difficulty was just literally trying to get these teachers to work with you when the kids are not necessarily maybe picking up on something. My oldest one, in her case, she was very smart. She would get bored and they didn’t keep her engaged. So her struggles were with behaviors. It’s just like they wait until the problems build all the way up and now I’m supposed to be miracle worker. I’m still mom. Not supermom. Trying to be. It’s just there’s no back and forth where I feel like a team. It was just me. There was no team.”

“I’m not really sure what’s going on or why,” Principal Jan Williams said. “The only thing slated to be cut in the governor’s budget is the Invest in Kids Act. I’m curious whether he thinks that private schools cater to rich kids, but they wouldn’t qualify for this assistance anyway.”

Bland commended St. Patrick’s teachers for “Really trying to lift these kids up, teach them good values that are not just going to go in school, but in life. So, [we’re] not getting that in the public school system.”

“As long as most schools can get 85 to 90 percent of the kids to succeed, that’s a really good percentage,” Williams said. “But we want to catch the ones who aren’t succeeding in a traditional classroom, aren’t succeeding in a traditional school so they can come here. We’re a little more flexible. We want to tell him specifically to save those scholarships because it allows a lot of our parents to bring their kids here to get the education that they need.”

The Democratic governor campaigned on a pledge to phase the program out over three years. His budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year would start by slashing the program in half and capping the amount of available scholarship donations, creating an estimated $6 million in budgetary breathing room. Children currently enrolled in the program would be allowed to remain in it.

“That’s crazy,” Bland said, pointing to the scholarships as an effective tool to break down barriers of economic segregation which often prevent low-income children of color from accessing private schools.

“It’s definitely segregated,” she said. “You are on a predominantly black side of town right now, and it’s probably your poorest.”

“Investing in public education is one of Governor Pritzker’s top priorities,” a statement from Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh read. “The governor’s budget proposed phasing out the scholarship tax credit program over the next three years so that the state can direct its limited revenues to funding its commitments to public schools first.”