First year of tax credit scholarships sees ‘overwhelming demand’; donors sought

(UPDATED Nov. 9, 2018, to reflect a change of location for the Nov. 15 training meeting from the Spalding Pastoral Center to Peoria Notre Dame.)

The first year of tax credit scholarships awarded as part of the Invest in Kids Act is coming to an end, but the work is just beginning for schools, parents and supporters of school choice who would like to see the program continue and grow.

To continue building awareness of the tax credit program and scholarships and offer help in contacting donors, the diocesan Office of Catholic Schools is hosting a training meeting for school and parish leaders next Thursday, Nov. 15, at Peoria Notre Dame High School. It will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and facilitated by a team from Empower Illinois, the statewide scholarship granting organization (SGO) that processes donations and scholarship awards for students in nonpublic schools.

Anthony Holter, executive director of Empower Illinois, said this is an ideal time for people to learn more about the program.

Signed into law on Aug. 31, 2017, and authorized for five years, the tax credit scholarship program allows individuals and corporations to make a donation to SGOs like Empower Illinois and receive a 75 percent credit on that amount when filing their state tax return. The cap for any one donation is $1 million, with a total cap of $100 million per year.

To claim the credit for their 2018 tax liability, donors must make this year’s gift by Dec. 31.

That means up to $75 million in tax credits may be claimed per calendar year.

Individuals may designate the school that will benefit from their gift.

To claim the credit for their 2018 tax liability, donors must make this year’s gift by Dec. 31, Holter said, noting that “a third of all charitable donations are made in the fourth quarter of the year, and most of those in December.”

Any gift received on or before Nov. 30 can still be used to grant scholarships for the current school year, 2018-2019. After that date, donations will be used to fund scholarships for the following school year, 2019-2020.

“As long as those dollars are coming in, we’re making awards and there are still credits available,” Holter said. “So if a donor learned about the program in August and makes a gift, we want to get those dollars out the door.”

NEW SYSTEM IN PLACE

“There’s an overwhelming demand,” said Bobby Sylvester, the regional director from Empower Illinois who is working with schools in the Dioceses of Peoria and Joliet.

“In the Diocese of Peoria we have 29 schools that received awards and those awards were slightly over $1 million. Because of that, 279 students were able to get a scholarship.That’s a great number, but to put it in perspective we have 1,738 kids who are on a wait list.” — Bobby Sylvester, regional director, Empower Illinois

“In the Diocese of Peoria we have 29 schools that received awards and those awards were slightly over $1 million. Because of that, 279 students were able to get a scholarship,” he said. “That’s a great number, but to put it in perspective we have 1,738 kids who are on a wait list.”

One of the most important ways for people to get involved in the program is to make a donation, he said.

“Kids only get one shot at a great education and they’re only in third grade or fourth grade once. We’ve got to get money in so we can fund scholarships for these kids,” Sylvester told The Catholic Post.

Holter emphasized that every dollar matters and said the most frequent donation they receive is $1,000 or less. Those contributions add up, however.

Statewide, across all SGOs, $46.9 million has been given this first year, making it possible to award nearly 5,000 scholarships.

“We want to grow it and we know we will, and we will do it in partnership with schools and dioceses, like the Diocese of Peoria,” Holter said.

He acknowledges that were some problems with the application process last year. Not only did the website crash shortly after going live, but parents and school officials found it difficult to get questions answered.

That has changed, Holter promised.

He said there will be an announcement soon regarding the new portal. In addition, the new process includes making a reservation to complete the application and will then allow families to follow its progress.

Hotlines will also be available for those who need assistance, as will email addresses that will be checked regularly.

GETTING READY

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said that not only is the program working, but it’s having an effect.

“We could use more donors. We need more money so we can help more parents. But what we’ve seen so far is terrific,” he told The Post.

While some legislators have been supportive of the tax credit scholarship program because they believe in school choice, others don’t like the way it was passed or don’t like the program, Gilligan said. Even though it was authorized for five years, new and returning lawmakers could try to repeal it.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois is making plans and preparing for a legislative debate, he said, and inviting legislators to visit the schools and talk with parents in their districts that are benefiting from the program.

The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools is hosting a training meeting for school and parish leaders next Thursday, Nov. 15.

“It’s been really humbling and heartwarming to listen to the stories of these parents,” Gilligan said. “I’ve heard many stories over the summer and this fall and the sacrifice that people are making with and without the scholarship tax credit is amazing. More people should know their stories.”

He said it would be helpful for people to prepare to make phone calls and lend their voices to support the program, if it becomes necessary.

“Come January they should be looking for messages from us, from Empower Illinois, about the status of what’s going on and fight for the continuation of the program,” Gilligan said. “Meeting with lawmakers, writing them — whatever can be done that conveys that this program needs to stay in place.”

To receive updates from the Catholic Conference of Illinois, visit ilcatholic.org and click on the link for “Join I-CAN,” the Illinois Catholic Advocacy Network.

If you would like to attend the meeting hosted by the Office of Catholic Schools at Peoria Notre Dame on Nov. 15, write to Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools in Diocese of Peoria, at sweiss@cdop.org by Nov. 13.

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