Donations to tax credit scholarships increase along with wait lists

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

A student from St. Richard School holds a pennant during the rally. Cardinal Cupich joined public officials and students and parents at a rally celebrate Illinois Tax Credit Scholarships Feb. 22, 2020, at St. Nicholas of Tolentine School. Schools involved were St. Joseph in Summit, St. Nicholas of Tolentine, St. Gall, St. Symphorosa, St. Richard, Queen of the Universe, St. Bruno and St. Mary Star of the Sea. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

A little more than four years ago, Gabriella De Leon wasn’t sure what to do about school for her younger daughter, Emily.

Emily had attended a Chicago Public School for first grade, one student in a class of more than 30, her mother said. The teacher didn’t have time to give her the attention she needed, and Emily’s learning suffered.

De Leon talked to other families and found out about St. Ann School, 2211 W. 18th Place. It was close to home, and the classes were small. But the family would need financial help to pay tuition.

Emily, and her older sister Itzel, then a student at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, both were awarded Illinois Invest in Kids scholarships. Now Emily is a happy fifth grader, getting good grades and looking forward to school, her mother said. Itzel graduated from Cristo Rey in the spring and is attending the University of Illinois on a full scholarship.

“The tax credit scholarships are very important to us,” Gabriella De Leon said in Spanish through an interpreter. “We couldn’t afford to send the girls to private schools otherwise.”

The issue is so important that De Leon has joined other parents working with the Resurrection Project in Pilsen to advocate for the program to be extended. Last year, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker included cuts to it in his budget; legislators not only did not cut the program, they extended the pilot so that rather than ending in 2022 it will go to at least 2023, giving supporters more time to try to make it permanent.

The program works like this: Illinois taxpayers, either individuals or corporations, can donate money to non-profit scholarship granting organizations, then take a 75% tax credit on their state income taxes. That means someone who donates $1,000 would get a $750 tax credit.

The scholarship granting organizations grant partial or full scholarships to students from low- and middle-income families at recognized schools, giving priority to families with the most financial need. Individual donors can direct that their donations be used at specific schools or groups of schools.

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago work with Empower Illinois and the Big Shoulders Fund, both recognized scholarship-granting organizations, and the archdiocese has worked to encourage people to donate.

This year, donations are up about 8% from the same time last year, said Clare Sullivan, director of scholarships for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

For this school year, 2,970 students attending Catholic schools within the Archdiocese of Chicago have received scholarships averaging $5,965, Sullivan said. Those students attend 150 schools. The average household income for a family of four that receives Invest in Kids Scholarships is about $36,000 a year, she said.

In the four years tax-credit scholarships have existed in Illinois, more than 13,000 donors have provided more than $212 million in scholarship money for students in the schools across the state.

In addition, the Archdiocese of Chicago, Big Shoulders Fund and Empower Illinois provide thousands of scholarships and other assistance to schools each year funded by traditional donations.

Sherri Stewart, principal of St. Bede the Venerable School, 4440 W. 83rd St., said the tax-credit scholarships draw families to her school, but there is a huge unmet demand.

This year, her school had 84 applicants for Empower Illinois scholarships; eight received funding and 76 are on the waiting list. There were 102 applicants for Big Shoulders scholarships; 10 were funded and 92 are on the waiting list.

The archdiocese has more than 13,000 students on waiting lists for tax-credit scholarships, Sullivan said.

Many of the St. Bede families who did not receive funding are making financial sacrifices to send their children there anyway, Stewart said, but some have been hoping to move their children from public schools.

Parents especially appreciated the opportunity to send their children to Catholic schools, which held in-person classes, during the 2020-2021 school year. Students in Catholic schools that year outperformed  the national average on learning gains as measured by the i-Ready assessment, Clare Sullivan said.

Luisa Sullivan (no relation) said her son received an Invest in Kids scholarship to attend Pope John XXIII School in Evanston last year. He graduated and now is a freshman at Loyola Academy in Wilmette, where her older son graduated last year.

The scholarship was hugely important when she had two children in Catholic schools, Luisa Sullivan said.

“I don’t know what we would have done,” she said. “I always went to Catholic schools, and I want my kids to go to Catholic schools because public schools don’t teach important things like our faith.”

Last year, it was even more important, she said, because her son was able to attend Pope John XXIII all year in-person.

“Remote learning for him would have been a disaster,” she said. “He needed to be in school.”


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