Cancellation of Illinois scholarship forces some Catholic schools to close their doors

St. Bede School teen Susan Lutzke, an alumna of St. Bede School, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in less than one month for her former Catholic institution. | Credit: Tina Lutzke

After an Illinois tax credit scholarship program was discontinued, some of the state’s Catholic schools are closing their doors and others are scrambling to cover the loss of the funds. 

The Illinois “Invest in Kids” scholarship program expired on Dec. 31 of last year after six years of offering hefty tax credits to individuals who contribute to private scholarship funds. The program made it possible for 5,000 low-income families to send their children to Catholic schools, according to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

The Illinois government says on its website that each year the program gave “75% income tax credit[s] to individuals and businesses” that contributed to “qualified scholarship granting organizations.” Those organizations would then “provide scholarships for students whose families meet the income requirements to attend qualified, nonpublic schools and technical academies” throughout the state. 

The program was due to sunset at the end of 2023. Last-minute efforts by state lawmakers to extend the tax provisions failed, bringing an end to the scholarships starting in January. 

Millions went to low-income students 

The end of the program has affected numerous Catholic schools throughout Illinois, including in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which in a statement this month said some of its schools are facing a “financial cliff” due to the loss of the scholarships. 

St. Frances of Rome School in Cicero and St. Odilo School in Berwyn are both facing closure in June, the archdiocese said, “bringing an end to a combined total of 196 years of Catholic education at their locations.”

“Across the archdiocese, the state scholarship program provides more than $25 million of aid to 5,000 low-income families to attend Catholic schools,” the statement said. 

It quoted Redemptorist Father Radek Jaszczuk, pastor of St. Frances of Rome School, who said that the loss of the scholarship program “created an insurmountable gap” for the school. 

Father Bartholomew Juncer, the pastor of St. Odilo School, said that “more than half the students at our two schools rely on these scholarships.” The closures leave just one Catholic school in each community, the archdiocese said.

In a statement posted to Facebook on Thursday of last week, St. Frances of Rome Advancement Director Nancy Rivera revealed that a “generous anonymous donor” had offered “a lifeline” to save the school from closure. 

Rivera said the school’s “hopes have been rekindled” by the donation, though she admitted that “the fight does not stop there.”

“Our struggle to keep the school alive continues,” Rivera wrote, stating that the school must still be approved by the archdiocese to remain open. The school community last week also launched a $500,000 GoFundMe fundraiser “to help us keep our school alive.”

Susan Miller, the superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Peoria, told CNA that the diocese was “extremely disappointed” in the state Legislature’s decision to end the program.

“For the last five years, this program has allowed underserved families an opportunity to choose a Catholic education as the best option for their child,” Miller said.

“Welcoming those families has made our students, our teachers, and our school communities better in every way.” 

“The elimination of the program will have a detrimental effect on the recipient students, their families, and all of our families,” she said.

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Miller said that at present it was “too early” for the Peoria Diocese to “make any decisions regarding any of our schools for the next school year.”

“Every year about this time, we evaluate the viability of our schools based on several factors, including cost, staffing, and enrollment,” she said. 

In at least one case a school has managed to bolster itself with privately raised funds. High school senior Susan Lutzke raised well over $400,000 for St. Bede School in Ingleside in the Archdiocese of Chicago after it was facing closure due to lack of funds. 

Lutzke’s mother, Tina, told CNA that the Invest in Kids scholarship “was a huge help” to the school. “And that program expired at the end of [2023], and it has not been renewed yet,” she said, leaving the school unable to “plan for our operating expenses for next year.”

The school “is hard at work on a plan for future, long-term sustainability and to show that we have the enrollment to support the decision to open our doors in the fall of 2024,” the fundraising organizers said earlier this month. Chicago archbishop Cardinal Blase Cupich will ultimately rule next month on whether or not the school will remain open. 

Other institutions have not been so fortunate. Notre Dame Academy in downstate Belleville indicated in a Facebook post earlier this month that the end of the scholarship program was the nail in the coffin for the school after years of struggle. 

The school in announcing its closure quoted Psalm 27 in writing: “I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. / Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord!”

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“While this announcement is certainly not the outcome any of us has worked for or wanted, even amid our sadness, we have plenty of reason to be grateful,” the school said. 

In November, Cupich said in the archdiocesan newspaper that the state Legislature “abandoned nearly 10,000 children attending Catholic and other nonpublic schools” when it allowed the scholarship to expire.

“One of the most important decisions parents make for their children is where they are going to send their children to school,” the archbishop said. “Making that decision should not be denied to families in need.”

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