Officials and parents of students within the Diocese of Joliet actively voiced their support for a scholarship program that was at risk during the state budget talks in Springfield.
Amid the flurry of activity in the General Assembly over the weekend, the Illinois Tax Credit Scholarship Program was preserved in the state’s budget, pending Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature. According to advocates for the program, it was one of the few specific proposed cuts that Pritkzer floated on the campaign trail in 2018.
With the prospect of the program being scaled back, supporters of school choice, such as the organization Empower Illinois, started the #SaveMyScholarship campaign to persuade lawmakers not to cut it.
Mercy Robb, the Diocese of Joliet’s director of marketing and enrollment management, said the tax credit scholarship program gives families the financial support needed to send children to private school.
“One huge fear is not being able to allow families in Illinois to have a choice,” Robb said. “Public schools aren’t the right fit for every student.”
The program was enacted in 2017 with the passage of the Invest in Kids Act, which offers a 75% income tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute to qualified scholarship-granting organizations such as Empower Illinois. Those SGOs then provide scholarships for students whose families meet the income requirement to attend qualified, nonpublic schools in Illinois. The program was originally capped at $100 million and would end after five years.
According to a report by Empower Illinois, the SGO the Diocese of Joliet mainly works with, the first year of the program saw more than $45 million raised and 5,459 scholarships granted out of 32,456 applicants across the state. The report said the average annual household income of scholarship recipients was a little more than $35,000 for a family of four.
The Diocese of Joliet said more than 300 of its students, out of 2,800 applicants, were helped by more than $2.5 million. Empower Illinois receives 5% of the money.
Robb said the Diocese of Joliet has seen a steady decline in student enrollment over the past several years. Still, the need for financial aid to attend Catholic school in the diocese is there. The majority of applicants qualify for 100% financial aid, according to Robb.
Ryan Quigley, the director of admissions and communications at Joliet Catholic Academy, said the high school’s enrollment has also decreased in part because the cost of educating students has risen over the past
15 years. He said annual tuition at JCA is $12,625, not counting fees.
Quigley called the success “good news out of Springfield.” He said he now wants to see the program expand past the initial five-year window and changed to provide a 100% tax credit to entice even more donors.
State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, D-Shorewood, said she felt it was ultimately fair to preserve the program as is, but that advocates need a plan for keeping the program past its initial timeline. While she thought there was an appetite to expand it, she said she would like to see a bipartisan discussion begin about making it viable past the five-year window.
Quigley said that the program is key to helping all families send their children to private schools. To him, because reforms such as property tax relief won’t come for a while, the program can help save local Catholic schools.
“Do we want to see these schools go away?” Quigley said. “Do we want to have an opportunity for families in Joliet to have access to our Catholic schools? Because right now they don’t, from a financial standpoint.”