DECATUR — Private schools are working quickly to take advantage of the state's Invest in Kids scholarship tax credit, which will make as much as $100 million in donations available to lower-income students in Illinois.
The Illinois Department of Revenue, which oversees the program, is relying on a handful of new nonprofit organizations to accept and process donations and student applications. Private schools hoping the money can spark enrollment growth have largely been tasked with alerting the public.
"I think we're still trying to figure it out," said Larry Daly, principal of St. Teresa High School. "We're getting information to our parents, and to the community if any family is interested in St. Teresa to look into it."
Tied to a sweeping revision of the needs-based formula that sends state aid to public schools, the tax credit scholarship allows businesses and individuals to donate up to $1 million to either a specific private school or the scholarship program at large. The tax credit is good for 75 percent of the total donation.
The scholarship program is of special concern to Decatur-area private schools, which have seen flat or lower enrollment in recent years.
"(The Invest in Kids Tax Credit Program) has created an awareness of school choice, and parents are being very proactive about finding funding because maybe private school wasn't an option for them previously," said Debbie Alexander, principal of Holy Family School.
But time is short. The nonprofits handling the process with schools, donors and student applicants, have been able to register with the Illinois Department of Revenue since December, and they must start awarding scholarships by Feb. 1, according to the law.
The Springfield Catholic Diocese which oversees Catholic Schools in Central Illinois, is working with Empower Illinois, by far the largest nonprofit handling the scholarships. The first to register with the state in December, Empower Illinois was created in September out of a school-choice advocacy group, One Chance Illinois, according to Empower Executive Director Myles Mendoza. Lutheran School Association also is working with Empower Illinois, said the school's executive director, Jeff Holmes.
Mendoza said that of the $41 million of the tax-credit donations so far received by the Department of Revenue as of Thursday, $32 million of that is being handled by Empower Illinois. Mendoza declined to divulge Empower's funding or its donors, but Mendoza and a cadre of contractors have lobbied Springfield since 2015 to promote school-choice initiatives, records from the Secretary of State's Office show.
"We have the benefit of national philanthropy to cover our start-up costs," he said. "We're able to have a call center, cybersecurity, a lot things that help us operate at scale."
The five-year pilot program is part of a school funding reform the General Assembly approved last year. The goal was to give lower-income families with school-age children more educational opportunities at private schools. The legislation, thought to help students escape failing public schools, was strongly opposed by teacher unions. Illinois is the 18th state with such a program.
Since Empower Illinois will be handling most of the tax credit money from donors across the state, its launch date of Jan. 31 at noon is critical for families and private schools. According to the Invest in Kids Act, applications will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis.
"It really is ... whoever gets in there," said Jeffrey Holmes, superintendent of the Lutheran School Association of Decatur. "It's kind of mad dash."
While Empower and others have to start awarding scholarships to applicants by Feb. 1, Mendoza said Empower decided to push back its application launch date from Jan. 24 to the noon Jan. 31 after Gov. Bruce Rauner issued an amendatory veto that would include private schools not recognized by the the Illinois School Board of Education. If lawmakers do not approve the veto, the scholarship program will continue as the law said before the governor's veto.
Mendoza said other nonprofit application systems have chosen launch dates as early as next week.
Decatur Christian School Principal Brian Minott said his school will be applying through the Association of Christian Schools International. ACSI's website said it will launch its application on Jan. 22, and officials there did not return a request for comment.
"We picked noon because it's a time where people tend to have a lunch break in lower-income communities, to give people the best chance to get the technology to apply," Mendoza said. "It's very important to get as close to that noon time stamp as possible." A time stamp indicates the exact time a user submitted an application in the online portal.
The timing is important because the scholarship is designed to award qualified students on a first-come, first-served basis until the money is gone. Because students who have won scholarships this year also will get priority in subsequent years, Empower's launch date will have implications for years to come, Mendoza said.
Hope for private schools
Private school administrators here hope the new scholarship money from the state and private donors will boost declining enrollment, which they speculate has to do with the area's declining population, more strong public schools outside the city of Decatur and perhaps the biggest culprit — rising tuition.
"I think a big part of our drop is that affordability," said Daly. "I realize these parents are making a sacrifice to send our kids here, and ... that's one of the reasons that the tax (credit scholarships) could help."
All six fully accredited private schools in the Decatur area have seen flat or declining enrollment in recent years, according to figures from the Illinois State Board of Education.
At Holy Family School, the tuition for one student next year will be $2,800, according to Amy Jedlick, a parent and school board member.
"When my daughter was in first grade, I want to say it was like $1,600 for one student, so $900 (more) over the last 10 years or so. I mean, that's quite a bit," Jedlick said.
Jedlick said Holy Family is planning an information session for parents, and the principal described a get-the-word-out campaign on bulletin boards and emails to parents in the parish and school.
But it's unclear if very many families outside of the faith-based schools' existing communities are aware of the state-funded scholarship opportunity with a very short window.
Decatur Christian School is planning an informational meeting parents sometime in early February, a couple weeks after ASCI's application launch date, according to Minott. He said he's worried less money will be available by the time parents apply, but "the sooner the better we get on this."
The private schools that are recognized by the state board of education disagree with Rauner's amendatory veto, which Empower has tried to accommodate with its later launch date.
"I think it's important that we look at schools that have proven through some means their ability to provide a quality education," Alexander said.
The non-recognized schools currently operating in the Decatur area according to the ISBE is Antioch Christian Academy and Prairie Flower Montessori School.
Shirley Shaw, the principal of Antioch, a small predominantly African-American school, said the school's board of directors has been working to find the resources to meet the state's requirements, which involves state evaluations and compliance of health, safety, and curriculum standards.
"Adding more (schools) to the pool, my concern is that it reduces the amount of dollars available to the recognized schools," said Holmes, of LSA.
According to the law's language, registered scholarship granting organizations "shall make reasonable efforts to advertise the availability of scholarships to eligible students."
But Mendoza said Empower Illinois has largely been focused on getting private school administrators up to speed before the end of January.
Alexander said the Springfield Diocese started rolling out information to Holy Family and other schools shortly after the new year about how families can use Empower's website and what forms they will need to apply for scholarships. According to Empower's website that includes a federal tax return, proof of Illinois residency and proof of a student’s age, such as a birth certificate.
Students must meet the criteria for the tax credit scholarships. Once applications are in, Empower Illinois and other scholarship granting organizations will award money based on income levels, with eligibility ending if household income is more than 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($73,800 for a family of four). For households below 185 percent of the poverty level, scholarships would cover all tuition costs for students, and above that level, the scholarship would be partial.
Students can apply after the launch date until April 1, but in this region of Central Illinois, schools will be eligible will be splitting no more than $7.5 million, part of the reason why getting in front of the line is crucial.
"I'll tell you this, I have never worked so hard in my entire life — seven days a week, 16-hour days," Mendoza said. Still, he said the application process for families is "not known as well as it needs to be."
Based on data from similar rollouts in other states, Mendoza said he expects to receive 175,000 calls, emails and texts in the coming days.
"We're expecting about 100,000 students to apply on Jan. 31."