Local impact of new tax-credit scholarships has been mixed

Local impact of new tax-credit scholarships has been mixed

CHAMPAIGN — Pitched as legislation that would diversify education choices for students across the state, implementation of the Invest in Kids Act has been mixed locally — with it sending more students into Catholic schools while excluding some funding from independent schools.

Tucked into a 2017 law overhauling the way the state allocates public-school funding was a tax credit scholarship program, intended to provide $100 million worth of partial- and full-tuition scholarships to state-approved private schools. Donors — individuals and corporations alike — can send money to what are called scholarship-granting organizations, and in return receive 75 cents off their tax bills for every dollar donated.

"The majority of our donations have actually come from individuals," said Empower Illinois executive director Anthony Holter, who leads the largest scholarship-granting organization in the state. "We were anticipating there would be more corporate support earlier on than we've seen."

Still, donors abounded. Locally, the Illinois State Board of Education approved nine private schools as the only ones eligible for the money, including Campus Middle School for Girls, Canaan Academy, Countryside School, Holy Cross School, Judah Christian School, St. John Lutheran School, St. Matthews School, The High School of St. Thomas More and University Primary Academy.

Of these, Canaan Academy and University Primary Academy declined to say whether they had received scholarship money from the state. Judah Christian Principal Michael Chitty declined to go into detail about the amount of money the school was allotted, saying only that the scholarships were "limited" in amount and it is difficult to determine whether they had a measurable impact on enrollment.

But the rest of the schools can be divided between those who did (every eligible Catholic school) and those who didn't (Campus Middle School for Girls, Countryside and St. John Lutheran).

Principal Tim Gabbert said the only reason St. John Lutheran didn't have scholarship money pledged was because his arrival — the arrival of a principal, entirely — was long after deadlines to apply for such money passed.

"We were a little late (in enrolling), so we haven't really been impacted," Gabbert said. "I am brand new — started in April. We had an interim principal and she was a teacher doing her best to hold things together."

Gabbert said the school plans to do more outreach to parents in the coming year, making more of them aware of possible state money that would alleviate the roughly $5,000-per-year tuition cost.

Outreach did little for Campus Middle School for Girls, said school outreach director Leanne Cunningham.

"It hasn't affected us at all; none of the funds were allocated to our school this year," she said. "We do have one student who did apply and didn't receive any funding; we found alternative assistance for her family. We're hopeful that things will change, but I'm not sure what we can do."

Tuition for the school checks in above $10,000.

Countryside head of school Stephanie Harman echoed the sentiment, saying the Invest in Kids Act "hasn't really affected us at all."

"We all had our eye on it, but from what I'm hearing from the independent-school world, it hasn't had a huge impact," she said. "Yes, we want to encourage socioeconomic diversity, but we have that, and it's been enabled through our own financial program."

Harman said she planned to watch the five-year program's progress, but since Countryside's financial model could operate without it, she said she wasn't planning on relying on it.

"From where I sit, I would prefer public funds go to public schools and make them great schools," she said.

The largest beneficiaries of the state's new program have been area Catholic schools, where enrollment has increased by as few as one new student (Holy Cross) to seven freshmen (St. Thomas More).

"The more positive fact is that families with difficulty affording our school, it made it a little easier for them," said Holy Cross Principal Joe McDaniel. "I think we got six or seven families: One new family and the other six were returning and they either got 100 percent or 75 percent (in scholarships)."

Tuition for a single child in a parishioner's family at Holy Cross starts at $4,580 annually.

While money from Empower Illinois was responsible for seven freshmen joining St. Thomas More, Principal Jason Schreder said money distributed to the remaining seven families was a gift.

"Even for those current families making sacrifices, it's a reward, so to speak, for making that sacrifice," he said.

St. Matthew School Principal Michelle Biggs didn't break down the numbers, but said the school received $60,000 in scholarship money from the state that was split between eight families.

Empower Illinois' Holter said expectations for next year's financial turnout are high.

"To say that we are redoubling our efforts isn't even it," he said. "We are doubling and tripling down to raise that $100 million cap as soon as we can."