Opponents of private school opportunity programs typically attempt to paint the programs as nothing more than an effort championed by far-right conservatives to give tax breaks to themselves and their wealthy friends, while leaving low-income and minority communities behind. While this seemingly fits an opposition narrative, the charge is nothing more than a myth that should be retired.
Education Funding: A Crash Course
Fundamentally, private school opportunity programs exist as a way to increase access to a market of schools that may be out of reach due to cost. In that way, private school opportunity programs are designed to, and in fact do, provide opportunity to vulnerable student populations.
More than half of the 50 private school opportunity programs across the country are means tested for income, or at the very least provide a preference for students from lower income families.1 Another eight programs are focused on students who reside in districts identified by their state as “poorest performing.”2 Twenty of the programs are focused on serving the special needs student population, who may find themselves in situations where their current schools are unable or unwilling to meet their unique needs.
Private school opportunity has been a hot polling question for much of the last decade, with general support across the nation rising over time to reach strong majorities of voters across nearly every demographic.
National polling shows diverse, robust support.
- 69% of voters support the idea of allowing families the opportunity to use dollars to attend a private school of their choice.3
- 72% of Black voters support private school opportunity programs.4
- 71% of Hispanic voters support private school opportunity programs.5
As to the myth that these programs are of, by, and for wealthy, White conservatives, the polling does not support this claim.
- 63% of Democrats support private school opportunity programs.6
- 67% of Independents support private school opportunity programs.7
Typically, Black and Hispanic Democrats poll at even higher rates, as their communities are the most positively impacted by these programs.
Voters have also shown a willingness to put education opportunity among one of the top reasons they go to the polls and for whom they ultimately vote. In 2018, Ron DeSantis defeated an African American Democrat, Andrew Gillum, by a slim margin. Post election analysis found that it was African American mothers who put Ron DeSantis in the Governor’s office.8 A key difference between DeSantis and Gillum was that DeSantis campaigned on a promise to expand Florida’s nation-leading private school opportunity programs, while Gillum vowed to roll them back.
Similar dynamics played out in Arizona, where the state’s governor, Doug Ducey, picked up 44% of the Hispanic vote, outperforming the other statewide Republicans on the ballot in 2018 by a considerable margin with the Hispanic population. This margin was again attributed to Ducey’s support for private school and other educational opportunity programs, where his opponent was unwilling to show the same support.9
What does public opinion on private school opportunity show in a “blue” state like Illinois? The myth espoused by opponents of private school–opportunity programs are programs for wealthy, White conservatives–does not hold here either. So, how does the Invest in Kids Act ensure scholarships help kids who need them most?
- The Tax Credit Scholarship Program is not only need-based, but the law provides a scholarship preference for students most in need of scholarship based on their income.
- The Tax Credit Scholarship Program recognizes the unique needs of students. It provides a scholarship multiplier for English Language Learners and students with special needs, recognizing those student populations need additional support.
Since its inception, 72% of all scholarships awarded by Empower Illinois have gone to students living at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, or students that would qualify for federal Free or Reduced Lunch. The Invest in Kids Tax Credit Scholarship Program is serving the populations it was designed to serve and voters agree.
Empower Illinois’ most recent poll conducted in September 2020, found that a majority of Illinois voters support the Invest in Kids Tax Credit Scholarship Program at 54%. Support was higher among Black, Hispanic, and Democrat voters reaching 72%, 65%, and 61% respectively.10
If you read this mythbusting analysis, it is clear that the notion of private school opportunity programs being for wealthy, White, conservatives is a myth that should be retired. Not only are the programs designed to eliminate a barrier that so many low-income, minority, and other disadvantaged populations face when it comes to finding quality education for their children, but these programs appear to be doing their job, as strong majorities of voters across all demographics support them. With such strong support, opponents ought to retire this myth and work with champions of these programs and policies to further expand them so more students can benefit.