Race to the finish(on)line
It was time for round two.
The date: January 15, 2019
Time: 7:00 p.m.
The prize: Scholarships for private school tuition worth up to $13,366 per child.
In a warehouse in Chicago, 500 computer stations were occupied with anxious mothers and fathers, many of them reciting prayers while waiting for instructions. The challenge was daunting, but unlike last year’s application event, there was a different feeling permeating the room. There was an aura of optimism, camaraderie, and unity as community members from across the religious and geographic spectrum gathered together to apply for private school tuition scholarships.
Ever since the passage of the $100 million Invest in Kids Act in August of 2017, Agudath Israel of Illinois (AIOI), in addition to its advocacy role, has been focused on implementation of the new program. Donors receive a 75% state tax credit for contributions to a scholarship organization, which then uses those funds to award tuition grants to low- and middle-income families on a first-come, first-served basis. AIOI teamed up with Empower Illinois, the largest scholarship granting organization in the state, assisting all 14 qualified Jewish schools and their families.
Just one year ago, Chicago-area families were facing a similar challenge. Eligible students could potentially receive scholarships for tuition, but the competition was daunting. More than 30,000 parents across the state would be applying and due to funding limitations and a legally-mandated, first-come first-served policy, the scholarship organization could only award scholarships to the first few thousand families who completed their online reservation form. Submissions are time-stamped by the millisecond and serve as the tickets to scholarships for the entire family. The stakes were high as eligible families could receive up to $13,000 per child. AIOI organized an event that would give all eligible families the greatest chance to receive scholarships. There were countless variables and unknowns, as this was a new program that the state had just passed into law.
Thanks to the hard work of many staff and volunteers, most of the 400 families that attended the 2018 application event were awarded scholarships and nearly $10 million dollars was awarded to 780 children to attend Jewish schools this past year. Many wondered, could that success be duplicated? There were several changes to the regulations, new challenges, and the demand was greater.
Once again, in advance of the application window going live, AIOI spent months working with schools to educate parents about the program and ensuring that all eligible families were ready to apply on the selected date. With many families having limited internet access or computer proficiency, AIOI worked to ensure that everyone had access to the fastest and most reliable system. Agudath Israel staff set up a warehouse with over 500 computers with fiber optic cable and created training exercises to maximize data entry speed. Agudah then mobilized community volunteers to assist with typing, computer logistics, and to serve as support staff.
As soon as the online portal went live, the room was filled with the tapping of keyboards. Applicants were asked to raise their hand upon completing the initial application. Within two minutes, everyone had their hands in the air and over 600 people spontaneously broke out into applause.
It is still unknown exactly how much funding will be available, as the program is funded through donations, but this was certainly another significant step closer to bringing additional vital resources to local families.
“There are so many people that have given countless hours and sleepless nights,” said Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, AIOI’s director of government affairs. “The success of this effort was possible only because of the dedication and unified effort of the entire community.”