Support for tax credit scholarships grows with donors, parents

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Mariagnes Menden, principal at St. Nicholas of Tolentine School, 3741 W. 62nd St., sanitizes the hands of students as they arrive to school on Jan. 13, 2021. They had a delayed start so parents had the opportunity to apply for tax credit scholarships that morning. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Donations for tax credit scholarships to archdiocesan Catholic schools are up about 20 percent over the same time last year, according to archdiocesan officials.

The increase is likely because more people are aware of the program, known as Invest in Kids, which allows Illinois income taxpayers to make a donation to a scholarship-granting organization and then take 75% of that donation off their state income tax bill, and people are aware of the work Catholic schools have done to provide safe, in-person education during the COVID-19 pandemic, archdiocesan officials said.

Donations can be directed to specific sets of schools — such as Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago — or to individual schools. Most of the donations for Catholic schools in the archdiocese are directed to individual schools, said Clare Sullivan, director of scholarships for the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools.

About 2,970 Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Chicago received scholarships averaging $5,965 for this school year, Sullivan said. That includes 138 archdiocesan schools, along with independent Catholic schools and those operated by religious communities.

Scholarships can be full or partial, depending on family income. To receive a full scholarship, a family of four cannot have an income of more than $48,500. The majority of recipients receive full scholarships.

Robin McAfee, acting principal at St. Anastasia School in Waukegan, said her school  relies on alumni, parents and other family members to get the word out, because getting children into her school and keeping them there ends up benefiting the whole community.

“Donations are crucial to our survival, and our survival is crucial to the community,” said McAfee, noting that St. Anastasia participates in a number of private and archdiocesan scholarship programs as well to make it possible for families to enroll their children. “Our kids go on to graduate from high school and go to college, and for a lot of them, they’re the first ones in their families to do that. Then they come back to the community.”

Of the 199 students at St. Anastasia, 39 have received tax-credit scholarships through Empower Illinois, one of the scholarship-granting organizations the archdiocese works with.  But 106 students applied for scholarships to St. Anastasia and did not receive them because there was not enough money available, Sullivan said.

The school has a capacity of 244 students and would love to accommodate more, McAfee said.

At St. Nicholas of Tolentine School, 3741 W. 62nd St., close to 70 of the 420 students have received tax-credit scholarships from either Empower Illinois or the Big Shoulders Fund, the other scholarship-granting organization with which archdiocesan schools work, and many students receive other scholarships or forms of financial aid, said Mariagnes Menden, the school’s principal.

“Tax-credit scholarships, they’ve been a blessing for us,” Menden said. “It’s been an opportunity to increase our enrollment. That student coming into our building, and they’ve never been here before, they’re becoming part of the St. Nick’s school family. They’re telling others — their friends, their relatives, their neighbors — all about St. Nick’s. That word-of-mouth might turn into another St. Nick’s family. It really is a win-win situation.”

St. Nicholas families and board members work to share the school’s story and encourage people to donate for tax-credit scholarships, Menden said, including helping them through the process, which has several steps. They also offer help to families who want to apply.

“We tell them, ‘If you don’t get it this year, you try again next year,’” Menden said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep that family here. And if they are new to the school, the fact that they applied opened the door for a further conversation with that family.”

Menden and McAfee said the families that have come into their schools with tax-credit scholarships have become valuable members of their school communities, with parents serving as volunteer coaches, scout leaders and in other roles.

Advocates are hoping that the increasing support makes it more likely that the program will become permanent. When it was first created in 2017, the program  was supposed to last five years, ending in 2022. Last spring, Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker proposed trimming its tax credit from 75% to 40%, meaning donors would only get 40 cents of every dollar they donated off their taxes.

State legislators preserved the credit at 75% and extended the program an additional year.

Brendan Keating, chief development officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago, said that just having the program in its fourth year has made people more aware of it, as has the coverage of Catholic schools providing in-person education throughout the 2020-2021 school year.

“I think donors have been watching what’s been happening with schools,” Keating said. “They’ve been very impressed by Catholic schools’ commitment to providing safe, faith-filled, in-person education. We’ve been doing a lot of communication around the great things that are happening in our schools.”

This year, Empower Illinois received $9.5 million in cash and commitments designated for archdiocesan Catholic schools between Dec. 1, 2021, and Jan. 6, Keating said, with donation running about 20% ahead of last year. In the entire year from Dec. 1, 2020, to Nov. 30, 2021, Empower received $11.8 million designated for archdiocesan Catholic schools. That does not count independent Catholic schools or those operated by religious communities.

Some of it can be attributed to a matching program the archdiocese has run for the past three years, lining up major donors to give double the amount of any donation to scholarships for archdiocesan Catholic schools starting Dec. 1 and going until the money runs out. This year, eight major donors provided $5.2 million in matching funds.

“The schools were ready for it,” Keating said. “They had people lined up and ready to donate on Dec. 1.”

The reason is simple: Donations are accepted all year, but those made in the winter and early spring allow schools to accept students for the following year knowing for sure that they will have a scholarship.

“Now is the time to do it,” Keating said.

The matching program, which Keating hopes to repeat in December 2022, makes dollars go even further. Under Invest in Kids, donors who give $1,000 towards scholarships will get back $750 when they pay their taxes, meaning they are only $250 out of pocket. If that $1,000 is part of the matching program, the schools they have designated will receive $3,000 in scholarship funds.

“These donations really go a long way,” he said.

The archdiocese operates a help line for people who want to donate but need some guidance to get through the procedure. For information, call 312-534-2617 or email [email protected].


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