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Transforming K-12 Education In Illinois

Due to the new tax credit scholarship program signed into law, families in Illinois who are not wealthy or politically connected are no longer stuck in a school district that does not serve the educational needs of their children. In honor of National School Choice Week, Dan and Amy are joined by Myles Mendoza of Empower Illinois to explain the tax credit scholarship program and how to donate, who is eligible to receive the scholarships, and the progress the organization has made thus far. For more information visit empowerillinois.org.

Proft: Top o' the morning, Dan and Amy. It's National School Choice Week, Amy! Jacobson: That's why you should be wearing your hat! Proft: Why? What does my hat have to do with it. Jacobson: You gotta show people who are watching on the web. You came in today with a fancy-shmancy hat! You got rid of the Bennett jersey, and now... Proft: It's a...y'know...felt fedora that I've had for 25 years. My friend...thank you for asking...my friend I went to high school with, Graham Thompson, he runs Optimo Hats, it's...they've got a shop at 102nd and Western, and he's also got a shop at the Monadnock Building. Jacobson: The Ma-Knock-Knock...oh yeah! Proft: Next to Union Lake Park. Jacobson: So it's very high brow... Proft: You thought I was referring to the Alabama quarterback. It's very tough to keep them... Jacobson: Tua-ma-ga-wa-ma-ga-nah! Proft: So, he makes, like, fine hats! He makes hats for movies... Jacobson: Oh really? Proft: Yeah, he's a really good hat maker. Jacobson: Can I borrow it? Can I borrow...your hat? Proft: No. Jacobson: Uh! So rude. Can I SEE your hat? Proft: Yeah, we'll get to my hat...it's National School Choice Week! Jacobson: Oh that's right! Proft: I'm tryin' to stick on the topic here. We're tryin' to... Jacobson: We're in the throes of selective enrollment right now. Proft: ...oh, for Peyton and Eli? Jacobson: Well, for Eli. Peyton... Proft: Oh, right right. He's got a year. Jacobson: It's a little dicey. He likes Jones Prep, Whitney Young, and Lane Tech. Proft: Hmmm. Alright. Well, someone's gonna have to... Jacobson: And they all have ups and downs. Proft: And people think that school choice doesn't occur in the selective enrollment...you're gonna have to find somebody to...maybe write a big check to one of those schools' foundations... Jacobson: That's what makes me so sick... Proft: Or talk to one of the feudal lords in your...in your circle. Jacobson: Well yeah, and we live in Tier Four...well his dad lives in Tier Three, people that live in Tier Four, that are in Section 8 Housing, I mean, they're screwed. They have NO chance. They're going to their local high school. Proft: Thus the importance of K-12 scholarships! And thanks to a consortium of folks, we've talked about this at length when it happen, an interesting and broad coalition of supporters...he actually got tax credit scholarships passed in Illinois, talking about $100 million a year for the next five years...half a billion dollars, if the money is raised, that can go to provide scholarships for children who aren't wealthy, or aren't politically connected, but have the chops to have access to better schools so they can get a better education so they can chart a course for a better life, and that's a good thing. And one of the individuals who has been at the tip of the spear on this is Myles Mendoza. He is with Empower Illinois. And it's one thing to pass legislation..."Yay, we passed legislation!" Then comes the implementation phase, and that's not sexy... Jacobson: ...then comes the work. Proft: Yeah, and that doesn't generate headlines. But one of the component parts of getting this scholarship program up and running so people can donate and scholarships can be granted is to build these scholarship-granting organizations, that can accept the money...are potentially recognized as providers of scholarship funds, so parents know where to apply to get scholarship funds. And this is what Myles Mendoza...the infrastructure he has been building. Myles Mendoza, Empower Illinois, thanks for joining us, appreciate it. Mendoza: Good morning, Dan. Good morning, Amy. Proft: Good morning. So just kind of give us the state of play. I know there's kind of a lot of technical details to putting all this together. But the Empower Illinois Scholarship Granting...Ombudsman, of some sorts, and this is where people should look if they want to donate, and this is where people should look if they want to apply for scholarships for their children? Mendoza: Correct. Dan, I would back up just a minute to the beginning part of the segment. You talked about the broad consortium of individuals that led to the passage of this law. Your listeners should all know that YOU were a big part of that consortium and everybody should be grateful... Proft: Well... Mendoza: ...to YOU for having this law in place. *As Mendoza is saying this, Jacobson is doing arm gestures like "Bow to the King" towards Proft* Proft: Well hold on a second, I want to give...I want to hear...I want to give Amy just a second to express her gratitude. Jacobson: I'm sorry, just...I very much appreciate the fine work you do, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Just like Oprah! Proft: Alright, moving on. We can continue now....yes! Jacobson: At the Golden Globes! Proft: Alright Myles, I'm sorry, go ahead. Mendoza: Okay, so you know, you're right, the implementation phase is now, that is the tough part. So, when the law passed, all the schools that were out there, whether they be in the "Tippy South" of Southern Illinois or Rockford, Chicago, you name it, they find themselves struggling with it, with the complications of all the compliance, cybersecurity, all the kind of things that go into this. And we all kind of banded together and created Empower Illinois. So Empower Illinois represents 85% of the schools statewide, and what it does essentially is it serves like a PayPal of scholarship granting. It allows all those schools to go ahead and raise money, under the compliance with the law, and then it also allows children to apply for those scholarships, either at their locations, or it allows them to apply at other places. Jacobson: Well, how many scholarships are available per school? And will there be scholarships available at, say, Walter Payton Prep, or Northside Prep, or at Lane Tech? Mendoza: Yes, I'm hearing about your struggle to get into selective enrollment schools, the great news for all those Section 8 kids you referred to...they now have a chance to extend that list. So no, the scholarship doesn't apply to Magnet schools, but it does apply to any qualified private school. So if you're recognized by the State of Illinois, a private school, you're participating in the program, that is now an option for all those kids. Proft: Oh and by the way, comparing it to PayPal as opposed to an Ombudsman is a much easier and better comparison. That's why Myles is in charge of Empower Illinois and not me. So for...$100 million is the annual cap, so where are we in the money raised, and how can people who, particularly in light of tax reform in a high-tax blue state like Illinois, what that's doing...people who want to maybe find some tax relief through philanthropic giving like to this tax-run scholarship program, where is it at and how can people get involved that they want to participate to help finance these scholarships? Mendoza: Right. There are two parts to this program; one is donating, the other is scholarships. So, for the donating, the best thing to do is to go to EmpowerIllinois.org, we have all the instructions and details, it's a little complicated, first you have to register with the Department of Revenue to become qualified to give, and then roughly ten days later, you get a code in the mail, and you enter that code back at Department of Revenue, you reserve a credit, and then you donate to EmpowerIllinois.org. The state has $100 million in credits, they're divvied up in five regions. Right now...and it's amazing, within days, we've raised $40 million...or pledged, $40 million in credits to the state out of that hundred. Proft: Wow, that's great. Mendoza: Empower Illinois is lucky to have $30 million of that. Proft: Wow...that's great. So, we're doing well! Jacobson: We're doing good, we're cookin'! Proft: They're picking it up and putting down, yeah! Mendoza: Moving fast! Proft: And so... Mendoza: And the... Proft: Oh, I'm sorry, go ahead. Just the...the scholarships piece of this. Mendoza: ...yeah, go...go ahead, Dan. Proft: No, no, I mean finish your thought that you were...the donating, and the scholarship granting, so talk about the scholarship granting. Mendoza: Yeah, when I...first there's one more word on the credits, because it's divvied up in five regions, it might LOOK like there's $60 million left...but Cook County only gets $50 million, and Cook County is moving the fastest. So those credits are going to be gone very very fast, even if the other regions of the state might take a little longer to get there. Jacobson: And is the process laborious? Because I remember applying for Pell Grants and everything...is it difficult? Mendoza: So we're working to make it as easy as possible, and each scholarship granting or decision has a different start time. For example, High Sight...it's HighSight.org, their application is available now for students. Ours goes available on the 24th of January, and parents just need to bring with proof of income, and some kind of verification of their identity, and address, residency. Proft: Remind us of the qualifications, of the income level qualifications and to kind of just generally speaking what the scholarship provides for those who qualify, so people can understand how much prospective tuition would be covered. Mendoza: Yeah, so it depends upon your household situation, but the roughest explanation is a family of four can earn up to $73K, the scholarships range depending upon your income or your special needs. But at baseline, for those at the lowest level, poverty...it can be up to $13K in the scholarship. If you're low income and Gifted, it can be 1.1x that amount. We also go up to $26K for students who have special education needs and have an IEP. *Individualized Education Program, not explained on air* Proft: So you're talking...yeah, I just want to emphasize this point, because I think sometimes people hear scholarships and think "Oh, it's gonna be a portion, I'm still gonna have to come up with cash that I don't know where I'm gonna get!" I mean, the scholarship levels you're talking about here are...you can send your kid to Ignatius! I mean... Mendoza: This is a game changer, yeah. We wanted to create a market, Dan. If it didn't do that, it wasn't worth it. Jacobson: Well...I don't know if I make too much money to apply! Proft: Well, the fact that CPS sent you a Link Card application would suggest you don't... Jacobson: Well that's just because my kids have a Hispanic last name! Proft: Yeah, I know I know, I'm kidding. So just in terms of kind of navigating this, if people go to the Empower Illinois website, is this kind of all laid out, so people can kind of...on the donor side, on the scholarship side, they can kind of figure out how to get to where they want to go? Mendoza: Yeah...there's really THREE sections, we really shouldn't forget about the third. If you're a school...or school leader...and you want to participate under the EmpowerIllinois.org Umbrella...you've gotta register your school to participate. Donors have a section, they can figure out how to make that donation. And then there's a section for students and parents to figure out how to apply. Proft: What about donor latitude, with respect to the program generally or the school specifically, how does that work? Mendoza: Yeah, there are two groups of donors. There are individual donors, and they can designate to the school of their choice, within their region, or if they want to donate to different regions, they can do that too, a little more complicated process. And then corporations make an undesignated donation. What that means is that they donate to a pot of money, any student to go to any school anywhere. So we're kind of covering both grounds. We want to make sure that we get the alma maters and the donors with allegiance to schools, but then we also cover the kids in the schools that don't have a historical donor base. Proft: And where does this go? The comparison I've made on this show recently is to what Florida has done, with a similar program over the course of the last 15 years or so, and you know, in terms of the outcome here...how many kids can be helped by these scholarships within the strictures of the passage that was signed into law last year, and frankly, and we've talked on this show, the positive results from Florida for those kids who have gotten such scholarships? Mendoza: Yeah so...I like to look at it, you know, in terms of kids. So, there are a lot of kids out there with unique needs. They might be bullied at a school and don't have a way out, and now they have a new option. They may have special education needs, and then resorted to having an attorney try to figure out how to get their educational option that they need, now they also have an option. So our goal is to make sure we hit all those kids. We have 15K scholarships that are available in Illinois TODAY. Just to look at Florida, Florida started off with a $50M program, that's half of where we are, and they got themselves up to where they are today, which is $650M program. But really it all depends upon schools locally taking ownership, becoming empowered to make this THEIR law, for parents to make this THEIR scholarship, and everybody working to make sure they fight for it. Proft: Yeah well, we're talking about tens of thousands of children and families that are going to be assisted in the process. Good stuff! Myles Mendoza, the boss over there at Empower Illinois...and the website again, Myles? Mendoza: EmpowerIllinois.org, and Dan, thank you one more time for all you did in getting this law to be a reality. Proft: My pleasure. Myles Mendoza, Empower Illinois, thanks so much for joining us, appreciate it. Mendoza: Okay, thank you. Jacobson: I'm on the website right now! Proft: Application will be done by the end of the show! Jacobson: Yeah, we'll see how it goes...and Myles joined us on our Turnkey Dot Pro Answer Line.

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