- Most school districts do not universally screen (test all students in a particular grade) for giftedness. Consequently, districts rely on parent advocacy and/or the student’s teacher recommending students for gifted programs. This is problematic because research shows wealthier parents are more likely to advocate for their child and be listened to by school administrators, and a teacher’s likelihood to recommend a student may be influenced by implicit bias.
- Many districts use national norms, rather than local norms, to determine standards for gifted education. This creates scenarios where the highest academic performers in a community may not be granted access to gifted education based on national relevance rather than local. Students should be compared with their local peers when determining eligibility for gifted education.
Empower Illinois believes every student, regardless of their race, income, academic ability, or ZIP Code deserves access to a quality education. But for too many children who live near poverty or for students with certain special needs, those opportunities are out of reach.
In 2017, Empower Illinois worked alongside a broad and diverse coalition to pass the Invest in Kids Act, a $100 million tax credit scholarship program, to answer the call of so many for quality educational options. This represented the first private school choice program in Illinois.
The Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship program provides K-12 scholarships for students in low-income and working-class families to attend a qualified private school in Illinois through a scholarship provided by private donor dollars.
Private donors may give up to $1.33 million to the qualifying Scholarship Granting Organization (SGO), such as Empower Illinois, to provide scholarships. Donors are then eligible to receive a 75 percent ($1 million cap) state tax credit on the donation to be used against the individual or corporation’s state and local tax liability.
Different from many existing tax credit scholarship programs around the country, donors may designate their donations to specific schools or school systems. At this time, corporations can donate, but may not designate their donation.
As a result of donations, qualifying students may apply and receive scholarships worth up to 100 percent of required tuition at a private school of their choice. Higher scholarships are available for specific populations of students, including; English language learners (ELL), students with individualized education plans (IEPs), and academically gifted students.
All students, regardless of race or income, deserve access to academically rigorous programs. In Illinois, however, both low-income students and students of color are greatly underrepresented in gifted programs:
Where does this disparity come from? It is twofold:
That is why in 2016, working alongside the Illinois Association for Gifted Children (IAGC), Empower Illinois passed the Untapped Potential Act, which requires local school districts to screen students universally using local norms in order to qualify for gifted and talented programs.
Empower Illinois strongly supports teachers and providing them the resources they deserve, and need, to support their students. Too often, teachers make personal investments to enhance their classrooms with supplies and other learning tools. That is why Empower Illinois championed a $250 tax credit for teacher expenses spent on out of pocket on supplies. Teachers are the backbone of a successful education, and we support policies that acknowledge their dedication to educating our children.
Students deserve to be in educational environments that meet their individual needs. For some learners, this means removing barriers to their academic curiosity and acceleration. Unfortunately, research conducted by Empower Illinois and its partners showed that nearly two-thirds of Illinois school districts did not have a policy regarding early entrance for high-ability students, nearly half did not have a policy that allowed students to take above grade-level classes or graduate early, and 90 percent did not have a policy that allowed students to skip grades.
For those schools that did accelerate students prior to the passage of the law, many did not utilize best practices. They would often have one decision-maker (superintendent or principal) and one referrer (parent, teacher, or principal) and rely on anecdotal evidence about whether acceleration benefits students.
But in fact, research shows acceleration does benefit students. A recent study that reviewed more than 100 years of acceleration research found that when high-ability students were accelerated, they exceeded the academic achievement of their non-accelerated, high-ability peers by nearly one-year on a grade-equivalent scale. Additionally, the study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, conducted over the past forty years by Vanderbilt University showed that accelerated students achieved higher degrees of education, were published in more scholarly journals, and were awarded more patents at an earlier age than non-accelerated peers of similar ability.
This is why in 2017, Empower Illinois, working alongside a broad coalition, passed the Accelerated Placement Act. The law requires school districts to have a policy based on best practices that allows students to enter school early, enroll in above-grade level classes, or skip grades altogether.
In Illinois, less than ½ of public schools offer AP Statistics, only ⅓ offer AP Physics, and a mere ⅕ offer AP Computer Science, according to recently released Federal Department of Education Civil Rights data. The percentages are even worse for schools in poor and/or rural neighborhoods.
These statistics are concerning. Too many students are without access to upper-level math and science courses during their high school matriculation. While we seek to grow student interest in the STEM fields and see more students (particularly historically underrepresented students) attend and progress through higher education, it is important that they not only have the foundation, but also the experience with upper-level courses that may inform their future education and career interests.
Since 2016, Empower Illinois has advocated for expanding coursework for students whose schools cannot find the resources or the talent to teach these courses.