CHICAGO (CNS) — Donations for tax-credit scholarships to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Catholic schools are up about 20% this year compared with the same time last year, archdiocesan officials reported.

The increase is likely because more people are aware of the program, known as Invest in Kids, which allows Illinois income taxpayers to donate to a scholarship-granting organization and then take 75% of that donation as a deduction on their state tax bill.

Archdiocesan officials said people are aware of the work Catholic schools have done to provide safe, in-person education during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Donations can be directed to specific sets of schools — such as archdiocesan schools as a whole — or to individual schools. Most donations are directed to individual schools, said Clare Sullivan, director of scholarships for the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools.

About 2,970 students received scholarships averaging $5,965 for the current school year, Sullivan said. That includes 138 archdiocesan schools, along with independent Catholic schools and those operated by religious communities.

Scholarships can be full or partial, depending on family income. To receive a full scholarship, a family of four cannot have more than $48,500 in income. Most receive full scholarships.

Robin McAfee, acting principal at St. Anastasia School in Waukegan, Illinois, said her school relies on alumni, parents and other family members to get the word out because getting children into her school and keeping them there benefits the wider community.

“Donations are crucial to our survival, and our survival is crucial to the community,” McAfee said, noting that St. Anastasia also participates in several private and archdiocesan scholarship programs to make it possible for families to enroll their children.

“Our kids go on to graduate from high school and go to college, and for a lot of them, they’re the first ones in their families to do that. Then they come back to the community,” she told Chicago Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper.

At St. Nicholas of Tolentine School in Chicago, nearly 70 of the 420 students have received tax-credit scholarships from Empower Illinois or the Big Shoulders Fund, the other scholarship-granting organization with which the archdiocese works, Principal Mariagnes Menden said.

“Tax-credit scholarships, they’ve been a blessing for us,” Menden said. “It’s been an opportunity to increase our enrollment.

“That student coming into our building and they’ve never been here before, they’re becoming part of the St. Nick’s school family. They’re telling others, their friends, their relatives, their neighbors, all about St. Nick’s. That word-of-mouth might turn into another St. Nick’s family. It really is a win-win situation,” she said.

st. Nicholas families and board members widely share the school’s story and encourage people to donate for tax-credit scholarships. School staff members also helps families who want to apply.

“We tell them, ‘If you don’t get it this year, you try again next year,'” Menden said. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep that family here. And if they are new to the school, the fact that they applied opened the door for a further conversation with that family.”

Advocates are hoping that the increasing support makes it more likely that the program will become permanent. When it was created in 2017, the program was supposed to last five years, ending in 2022. Last spring, Illinois Gov. Jay Pritzker proposed trimming its tax credit from 75% to 40%, meaning donors would only get 40 cents of every dollar they donated deducted from their taxes.

State legislators preserved the credit at 75% and extended the program an additional year.

Brendan Keating, the archdiocese’s chief development officer, said that having the program for four years has made people more aware of it, as has the coverage of Catholic schools providing in-person education throughout the 2021-2022 school year.

“I think donors have been watching what’s been happening with schools,” Keating said. “They’ve been very impressed by Catholic schools’ commitment to providing safe, faith-filled, in-person education.”

This year, Empower Illinois received $9.5 million in cash and commitments designated for archdiocesan schools between Dec. 1 and Jan. 6, Keating said, with donations running about 20% ahead of a year ago.

During the year from Dec. 1, 2020, to Nov. 30, 2021, Empower received $11.8 million designated for archdiocesan Catholic schools. That does not include independent Catholic schools or those operated by religious communities.

Some of it can be attributed to a matching program the archdiocese has run for the last three years, lining up major donors who give double the amount of any donation to scholarships for archdiocesan schools starting Dec. 1 and continuing until the money runs out. This year, eight major donors provided $5.2 million in matching funds.

“The schools were ready for it,” Keating said. “They had people lined up and ready to donate on Dec. 1.”

The reason is simple: Donations are accepted all year, but those made in the winter and early spring allow schools to accept students for the following year knowing for sure that they will have a scholarship.

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Martin is a staff writer at Chicago Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.