Four schools affected by Pritzker plan to scale back private school funding program


Daily file photo by Colin Boyle

J.B. Pritzker at a campaign event in April. Pritzker proposed cutting state-funded private school scholarships.

Sneha Dey, Assistant City Editor

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s plan to scale back state-funded private school scholarships would affect families at four secondary schools in Evanston.

In its first budget plan, Pritzker’s administration recommended reducing funding for Empower Illinois, a private school scholarship program. The bipartisan program, which awards tax-credit scholarships to low-income children, passed under former Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Students at four private schools in Evanston — Beacon Academy, St. Athanasius School, St. Joan of Arc School and Pope John XXIII School have all received scholarships through Empower Illinois, which began in 2017.

The Illinois General Assembly passed the Invest in Kids Act in 2017, which established a five-year tax-credit scholarship pilot program. The program offers a 75 percent income tax credit to individuals and corporations contributing to scholarship organizations like Empower Illinois. In the program’s inaugural year, more than 33,000 students applied, and 5,459 students from 402 private schools across the state received scholarships.

In his first budget address Wednesday, Pritzker said he wants to reallocate funding from Empower Illinois to public schools. The Pritzker administration also plans to add $375 million to total school funding, $25 million over the state minimum.

Anthony Holter, the executive director of Empower Illinois, said in an email to The Daily that public education is generally rooted in equal opportunity, but children from low-income areas or with disabilities sometimes need to look outside the public school system for more suitable educational opportunities.

Three families at Pope John XXIII School, located at 1120 Washington St., received scholarships for the 2018-19 academic year, said Gail Hulse, the school’s principal. She also said families should have a choice between private and public schools.

Hulse said even though Pope John XXIII is a Catholic school, the state funding for the tax-credit scholarship is unrelated to the school’s religious affiliation. She said the Pritzker administration should re-evaluate the program after the pilot window passes in 2022.

“We’re a charitable institution. We’re a nonprofit,” Hulse said. “Shouldn’t people be able to give to us? If this isn’t good, why is any kind of charitable deduction okay?”

Through Empower Illinois, 2,384 students in the Archdiocese of Chicago received tax-credit scholarships, according to Susan Thomas, the Archdiocese of Chicago public relations and communications manager. Thomas said the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools also works with another scholarship granting organization, Big Shoulders Fund, which exclusively supports low-income Catholic schools.

As an institution recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education, Chiaravalle Montessori, a private school in Evanston, is eligible for the scholarship, but chose not to pursue the tax-credit program.

Beth Caldwell, the school’s director of communications, said the school chose not to pursue funding because it would need to find outside donors to use the tax credit. She noted there is a general fund for high-need schools, but Chiaravalle Montessori does not meet the need requirements. The school is currently entirely tuition-funded by families and students, she said.

Caldwell said the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools has been able to take advantage of the tax-credit scholarship, and Empower Illinois wanted Montessori schools to mobilize in a similar way.

“We aren’t affiliated under an umbrella in the same way,” Cadwell said. ”We’re all independent schools … We have our own funding.”

Caldwell said even though Chiaravalle Montessori is not taking advantage of the funds, Near North Montessori School, based in Chicago, has received funds from Empower Illinois.

Empower Illinois will continue to work with other politicians and community partners for other sources beyond state funding, Holter said in an email.

“Ending the program prematurely or capping its potential would leave thousands of families extremely vulnerable,” Holter said.

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