Catholic, religious schools rally to save tax credit scholarships

By Steve Euvino | Contributor
Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Catholic, religious schools rally to save tax credit scholarships

Nearly 200 students, families and Archdiocese of Chicago representatives gathered for a rally calling on the Illinois legislature to extend the Invest in Kids Act Tax Credit Scholarship Program on Sept. 13, 2023 at St. Sabina Academy, 7801 S. Throop St. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the Leo High School choir sing and lead cheers at the opening of the rally. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Students from St. Gall School, 5515 S. Sawyer Ave., look over a sign before the start of the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants from St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero cheer during the rally. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Shaka Rawls, principal of Leo High School, 7901 S. Sangamon St., speaks during the rally. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Young students make a heart with their hands during the rally. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
St. Sabina parent Sabrina Sibby speaks to her son Joshua Weston's experience on why the tax credit scholarships are important. Joshua stands next to his mom and listens. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants hold up signs during the rally. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Zion Cornell-Strickland, a senior at Leo High School, talks about the opportunities he received from being awarded a scholarship. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A participant records Leo High School student Theauntae Jones speaking to the assembly. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Leaders from schools, nonprofits, school system representatives, organizations and different faiths gather to support tax credit scholarships. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic
Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor of St. Sabina Parish, speaks about the social justice issues of tax credit scholarships. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A student from St Gall School holds up a sign while his classmates cheer. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Maria Paz, a parent from St. Francis de Sales High School, 10155 S. Ewing Ave., spoke on behalf of parents. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Principals from over 14 schools from the Archdiocese of Chicago schools, Diocese of Joliet schools, Diocese of Rockford schools, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and Agudath Israel of Illinois attend the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Over 200 students cheer at the rally. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Habeeb Quadri superintendent of MCC Academy and representing the Illinois Coalition of Non-Public Schools, speaks during the event. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Educators, clergy, parents and students gathered Sept. 13 at St. Sabina Academy, 7801 S. Throop St., to show their support for Illinois’ tax-credit scholarship program, which is at risk of not being renewed by state legislators before it expires at the end of the year.

“Save our scholarships!” several hundred people chanted as they wore T-shirts and held signs bearing that message.

They made it clear that they want the Invest in Kids Tax Credit Program saved now.

“It means they’re in a private school that’s able to meet their academic needs,” said Nicole Edwin, the mother of four at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Waterloo, Illinois. 

The Waterloo resident said three of her children have neurodivergent issues, but only one qualifies for an individual education plan.

“This school gives them the successes they need,” Edwin said. “They’d be lost in a larger school.”  

The Illinois Invest in Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program, enacted in 2017, offers a 75% income tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute to qualified scholarship granting organizations.

The organizations then provide scholarships to students of families earning less than 300% of the federal poverty level, so that they can attend qualified non-public schools and technical academies in Illinois.  

According to Empower Illinois, the state’s largest scholarship granting organizations, the state has issued nearly 41,000 tax-credit scholarships since 2018. However, in its spring session the Illinois General Assembly chose not to renew the program.

Anthony Holter, president of Empower Illinois, explained that without legislative action, the program will sunset Dec. 31, 2023.

“The most important thing is the kids and families impacted,” Holter said. “There were 9,500 scholarships issued last year, with more expected this year.”

According to archdiocesan figures, an estimated 2,970 Catholic school students in Chicago received scholarships during the 2021-2022 school year.

As vice president of the school board for Little Flower School in Springfield, Michelle Fesi said her school has six students on scholarships, with 31 on a waiting list. 

“Kids have the opportunity to attend a school they might not otherwise afford,” Fesi said, adding that schools are working to change the minds of lawmakers opposed to the program.

These scholarships are critical for students, said Michelle Ruppel, principal at Sister Thea Bowman School in East St. Louis. 

“It gives them a chance,” she said.

Bowman has 110 students, with about 10% on scholarships, Ruppel said.

Sally Santellano, principal at St. John de la Salle School in Chicago, said scholarships “make a huge difference — really a game-changer. We have a lot of single parents and working families.”

Of St. John de la Salle’s 190 students, 10 receive scholarships. Among them is Malika Hannah’s son Aiden 6, a first-grader.

“This has made it possible for people to send their children to a Catholic school. If not, we would not be able to pay for it,” the mother said. “This school is very family-oriented. Everyone knows everyone.”

Shaka Rawls, principal at Leo High School in Chicago, noted, “Our goal [as schools] is to stay open and stay viable. Our schools matter. These scholarships enable the schools to stay open.”

Of Leo’s 233 students, about 70 receive scholarships, Rawls said, adding that enrollment has grown 40% since the scholarship program began. 

One of three Leo scholarship recipients to speak at the rally, senior Zion Cornell-Strickland, said attending the private school has enabled him to “learn and experience new things.”

Cornell-Strickland, who plans to attend the University of California at Berkley, added, “Every kid should have a chance and a choice.”

Freshman Ian White-Holmes noted, “Without the scholarship, I would not be able to afford Leo. This is a place where I can be myself and not be judged.”

Father Michael Pfleger, senior pastor at St. Sabina, said the scholarship issue is not about taking money from public schools. He called voting against the issue “voting against the poor.”

Removing the scholarships, he said, can widen the economic and educational gaps. 

“Let’s take the politics out of this and do what’s best for children,” Pfleger said.

According to Principal Tiffany Brown, St. Sabina Academy has 177 students, 54 of whom receive scholarships.

Sabrina Sibby, a St. Sabina mother, wanted a safe place for her son Joshua Weston, a sixth-grader. 

“This is a safe, respectful, and trauma-free environment,” she said, adding that eliminating scholarship would have a “traumatic impact on families.”

Maria Paz, whose daughter is a sophomore at St. Francis de Sales High School, 10155 S. Ewing Ave., said she would be “devastated” if her daughter had to change schools.

Islamic, Jewish and Lutheran representatives also attended the rally. In all, 13 schools, five school organizations, and seven organizations were represented.

Habeeb Quadri, superintendent of MCC Academy in Skokie and Morton Grove and representing the Illinois Coalition on Non-Public Schools, said, “We are doing this for the kids. We are asking our legislators to invest in kids.”

Quadri estimated more than 10,000 students currently on scholarships, with another 26,000 seeking scholarships.

“That choice can affect opportunities for students,” Quadri said, “and can affect generations of families.”


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