Applications for tax credit scholarships underway; how one family is benefiting

Dr. Noreen Dillon, principal of St. Mark School in Peoria, confers with Cachet Rodriguez, who is starting the application process for tax credit scholarships for St. Mark families who weren't able to come or didn't have access to the internet when the Empower Illinois portal went live on Jan. 15. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)

Many parents who send their children to Catholic schools have made sacrifices so that could happen. Cachét Rodriguez of Peoria is one of them.

“Seeing what Catholic education is doing for my children as a whole, making them grow spiritually and as just good human beings, it’s very important for me to continue that tradition,” said Rodriguez, the mother of two students at St. Mark School in Peoria.

That has become a little easier for her this school year since she received tax credit scholarships that will cover all of the tuition and fees for both students.

Another 21 children at St. Mark received scholarships, which may also be given for 50 percent or 75 percent of tuition and fees. Dr. Noreen Dillon, principal, said she has seen all three types of grants for her students.

Applications were filed for 80 qualified students at St. Mark, according to Dillon, who noted that this is nearly half of the school’s current enrollment.

“And it depends on if there’s funding,” she told The Catholic Post. “If there’s not funding, nobody gets it. The more funding we get, more of our families who apply would get that.”

SECOND YEAR FOR PROGRAM

The tax credit scholarships are made possible by the Invest in Kids Act. 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 scholarship granting organizations 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.

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

Schools in the Diocese of Peoria — and reportedly 80 percent of all private schools in the state — have been working with Empower Illinois to process donations and scholarship awards.

Individuals may designate which school will benefit from their donation.

In 2018, more than $60,000 in donations were designated for St. Mark School. Dillon said it’s important to understand that no one at the school decides how the money is spent, however.

That criteria is established by the legislation and takes into account family income, among other things.

The application process for the 2019-2020 school year started Jan. 15, when families were able to access Empower Illinois’ EmpowerXChange portal and file their initial information. This created a time stamp for every applicant, placing them in line to complete the application when they received an invitation from Empower Illinois to proceed.

In addition to allowing families to complete their application, the portal makes it possible for them to check their application status at any time.

By law, at least one scholarship must be awarded by Feb. 1. According to Empower Illinois, scholarships will continue to be awarded as funds become available at the applicants’ schools.

It was reported that more than 40,000 students are in line for a scholarship next year, including 1,541 from the Diocese of Peoria.

The Catholic Schools Office of the Diocese of Peoria confirmed that as of Jan. 21, $1,108,959 in tax credit scholarships had been awarded to 291 students for the 2018-2019 school year.

LOVE AND COMPASSION

Like many Catholic schools around the diocese, Dillon opened the computer lab at St. Mark for families to use on Jan. 15. While computer problems at Empower Illinois made the process more difficult to accomplish a year ago, all went smoothly this year and those at St. Mark were able to finish the first step in the application process in 15 minutes or less.

“It brought me to tears when we got the acceptance letter. We are not wealthy people. I work very hard. I work lots of overtime, on top of the volunteering I do at the school.” — Cachét Rodriguez

Rodriguez, who is president of the Parish School Association and sits on the parish’s education commission, stayed a few minutes longer to get applications started for families who were not able to come that night or did not have access to the internet. She knows what it means to them, because it means so much to her.

“It brought me to tears when we got the acceptance letter,” she said. “We are not wealthy people. I work very hard. I work lots of overtime, on top of the volunteering I do at the school.”

The volunteer work is her way of showing appreciation for the school and what it has been able to do for her and her children. She called the tax credit scholarships “an added bonus of love.”

“Maybe you don’t know who those people are who are giving it, but it shows the amount of love and the amount of respect that they have for the kids and their education,” she said.

Rodriguez added that she feels blessed and grateful, not just for the scholarships but for the love and compassion she has felt.

“There are so many families I believe who want to send their kids to a Catholic school but don’t know how to get there. They don’t know if they can afford it or if there is any assistance to give them a subsidy,” Rodriguez said.

“Every child who wants a Catholic education has a right to that education,” she said. “We need to help make sure that all of our kids are able to attain that.”

For more information on tax credit scholarships or how to make a donation, visit cdop.org and click on the links for “Catholic Education” and “Tax Credit Scholarships,” or go to empowerillinois.org/donors and look for the tutorial on “How to Donate.”

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