Catholic officials applaud Illinois’ new scholarship tax credit program

PEORIA, Ill. — Catholic officials in Illinois are applauding state education funding reforms that include a scholarship tax credit program designed to provide up to $75 million a year in scholarships for qualifying students attending nonpublic schools.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the highly debated reforms Aug. 31 at Ebinger Elementary School in Chicago.

"Today we are making Illinois history," said Rauner, claiming the legislation ensures that "every child in Illinois has an equal chance at an excellent education."

While much of the legislative package is designed to remedy past inequities in the funding of the state's public school districts, the inclusion of the scholarship tax credit program — promoted heavily by the Catholic bishops of Illinois with Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago as a lead proponent — is viewed as a significant victory for the state's Catholic and nonpublic schools.

In a Chicago Sun-Times story Sept. 1, Cardinal Cupich said he helped the governor and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan to trust each other in working out this legislation.

He also said he asked those on both sides of the debate to remember the children.

"We have to look at how we're modeling for our kids ... how do we deal with challenges. If it's always in a toxic and antagonistic way, we're not teaching our kids a good lesson. So, I tried to call their better selves and their better angels from them about the importance of their example for the greater population, especially kids, and how we deal with problems," Cardinal Cupich said.

The new program allows taxpayers — individuals, corporations, partnerships or trusts — to donate to designated scholarship-granting organizations (SGOs) that distribute funds as scholarships to students from low-income households and others meeting specified requirements planning to attend a qualifying nonpublic school.

In return, donors receive a state tax credit of 75 cents on every dollar they give, up to a maximum donation of $1 million.

Jim Rigg, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, called the new state education budget a "true win-win for children and families in Illinois."

"As an educator and a parent, I support good schools for all students," said Rigg. "The inclusion of tax credit scholarships in the education bill will be a great benefit to many families in greater Chicago and across Illinois."

According to archdiocesan figures, the 79,000 students enrolled in Catholic schools in Cook and Lake counties alone save Illinois taxpayers more than $1 billion a year in education costs.

The new legislation "will help give students and their parents the opportunity to choose their education and their future," said the Catholic Conference of Illinois in a statement after the Illinois Senate in Springfield passed a compromise school funding bill Aug. 29. The previous day, the legislation took two roll-call votes to pass the Illinois House.

"We are grateful to the governor and the legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle for choosing sensible compromise in making this choice a reality in Illinois," the statement added.

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, said the conference's work of lobbying for the scholarship program now shifts in focusing on how to implement it.

Under the plan, a student would qualify for a scholarship if his or her family earns 300 percent of the federal poverty level or less ($73,800 for a family of four). A priority will be given to students from higher poverty households or those who reside in a poorly performing public school "focus district." Students already enrolled in Catholic schools can qualify.

Sharon Weiss, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria, similarly called the program a "win-win" for both public and nonpublic schools while acknowledging that the tax credit program had its share of opponents, including teachers' unions and some politicians.

"We're always trying to build up our scholarship monies," she said. The Diocese of Peoria, for example, distributes about $600,000 a year in scholarships through the Spalding Endowment, created by a capital campaign in 2004, but those disbursements meet less than 20 percent of the need.

Contributing to this report was Joyce Duriga in Chicago 

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