Donors match gifts to tax-credit scholarships for Catholic schools

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Participants hold signs as representatives from over 10 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago gathered March 11, 2019, at St. Agnes of Bohemia School for a tax-credit scholarship celebration with Empower Illinois. Families from select schools in Pilsen, Little Village, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park and Summit spoke about how tax-credit scholarships have allowed them to attend Catholic schools. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

St. Mary Star of the Sea Principal Candice Usauskas knows how important the Illinois tax-credit scholarship program is to her school families.

About 20 of the school’s 220 students receive scholarships through the program. This year, in mid-January, when the school offered help filling out the application forms for the third year of the scholarship program, more than a half-dozen parents were waiting at 7:30 a.m.

“It’s not that they don’t know how to fill out the forms,” said Usauskas, whose school is at 6424 S. Kenneth Ave.  “It’s that this is so important, so critical to them, they want to make sure all their i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed and everything is exactly right.”

To try to make more scholarships available, a group of donors in the Archdiocese of Chicago have banded together to offer a two-to-one matching gifts to any donations made to Empower Illinois, a scholarship-granting organization, as long as those donations are earmarked for Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

That means a $500 donation for scholarships at a particular school will triple to $1,500 in scholarship money at that school. The matching gifts are limited to $50,000 per school and are available through the end of February.

Anthony Holter, executive director of Empower Illinois, said a similar matching gift program last year brought in about 115 new donors, and he hopes for similar or better results this year.

Empower is a private scholarship-granting organization that works with about 80 percent of the private schools in Illinois, including the Catholic schools in all six of the state’s dioceses. It and a scholarship-granting organization run by the Big Shoulders Fund are the two preferred organizations that work with schools in the archdiocese.

More than 3,000 students in archdiocesan schools have benefited from the scholarships.

The scholarship-granting organizations were created as part of a five-year pilot program passed in 2017 that allows Illinois taxpayers to take a 75 percent tax credit for money donated to scholarship-granting organizations, which in turn give scholarships to students from lower income families.

That means a donor who gives $1,000 through the program can claim a $750 tax credit.

Donors can choose the schools whose students benefit from their gifts, but not the particular students who receive scholarships.

The state caps donations through the program at $100 million a year, or $75 million in tax credits, but the program has never come close to that limit.

Donations totaled more than $61 million the first year, Holter said, when there was a lot of publicity about the program. Donations dropped to about $41 million last year.

Holter is hoping the matching gifts — which could amount to between $4 million and $5 million — will help drive that total up.

“Every year, more parents find out about us and apply,” he said. “It’s more difficult than we anticipated to make potential donors aware. We’re finding for a lot of them, it’s a top-of-mind awareness issue.”

That means making sure they see and hear messages about tax-credit scholarship donations multiple times, and that they understand that they can take 75 percent of what they donate off their state income taxes.

After state legislators threatened to cut the pilot program short last summer, it also means reminding people that the program still exists.

Holter is encouraging school leaders and families to help get the word out.

“Especially now that we’re in the application phase for next year,” Holter said. “Schools can go to donors and say, ‘We’ve got 10 people on the waiting list.’”

Usauskas said she has tried, but many people in her school community aren’t in a position to donate money, and those that are already give as much as they can.

“For a lot of our people, Catholic school is a dream,” she said.


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