Removing Tax Scholarship Program Would ‘Hurt Those People That Saw Hope,’ Families Say

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CHICAGO — Salvador Hernandez and his wife Michaela both grew up attending private Catholic schools while growing up in Chicago, an experience they relished and hoped that one day their own children would get to replicate.

Indeed, today the pair’s four children — sixth-grader Marko; fourth-grader Sara; Elisa in first grade and the youngest in preschool — all attend St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic School on Chicago’s SW side, near Midway, which is overseen by the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools.

To the Hernandez family, attending private Catholic school is not just about providing their children with the type of education they prefer, but it aligns with their religious beliefs and family traditions.

“We know there are options out there besides Chicago Public Schools with charter[s] but we are very firm believers in our faith and know how much our Catholic education helped us grow, not only in education, but in faith and character as well,” Mr. Hernandez said.

It’s a part of their children’s upbringing that excites them, but it also comes at a cost.

Between his four children, Hernandez estimates he pays approximately $13,000 a year. Even working full-time and receiving bonuses, it was a stretch that sometimes came at the expense of family vacations.

So when he heard in fall of 2017 that Gov. Bruce Rauner would be implementing a new, tax credit scholarship program that would greatly help low-income students to attend private schools of their choice, the Hernandez family was elated.

Based on the family’s income, Mr. Hernandez said his family would qualify for a scholarship equivalent to about 50 percent of tuition — a huge win for his family.

However, that hopeful future could be thrown into disarray: Gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker called the scholarship program a “really bad idea” and threatened to remove it “immediately.”

It’s potentially a big blow to the Hernandez’, who spearheaded an awareness campaign on the program at their school. From their conversations with other families, it’s a program that many are looking to take part in.

As Hernandez delved deeper into research and began trying to thoroughly understand the scholarship program. When he brought the scholarship program to the attention of his children’s school principal, he said he was asked for help on creating an awareness campaign in the school community so that other potentially qualifying families could apply, as well.

Hernandez said he even took a few days off from his job to organize and help spread information and resources to other parents, including using the school’s computer lab as a help station. There, families who lacked internet or a computer or needed language, technology or application assistance could find help among Hernandez and his wife. On the first day applications were open, Hernandez said at least a dozen families were lined up out the door waiting.

It’s still too early for Hernandez to know if his family will be awarded a scholarship, but he remains both hopeful and worried at the same time. Hopeful for the scholarship, but disheartened to hear that some political candidates, like Pritzker, would vow to “immediately” remove a program that means so much to families like the Hernandez’.

“Removing a program like that is completely going to hurt those people that saw hope,” Hernandez said. “If somebody were to tell me, ‘Hey, you’re losing your $4,000 scholarship because this tax credit thing is being pulled from out under your feet,’ it hurts.”

Something like this being removed from us now, or even talking about it, I don’t think people understand the effect it will have long-term, because so many people who qualify for help may no longer be able to afford [an education] without it.
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“Tax credit scholarships provide low-income families in Illinois, for the first time, school choice for their children,” said a representative from the Archdiocese of Chicago. “And we know families are eager for this choice as, to date, more than 27,000 families, representing 44,000 students, across the state have applied for tax credit scholarships. The Archdiocese of Chicago supports the tax credit scholarship program as it provides unprecedented opportunity for so many deserving families in Illinois.”

Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti said she also stands by the program, and recently shared her own “life-changing” experience on WLS Radio about being accepted into a magnet school when she was growing up. The lieutenant governor said she knew firsthand what it was like to have access to education and opportunities open new pathways for children, especially in the types of underserved neighborhoods like where she lived.

When she heard Pritzker say he would rid of the new program, meant to help kids who grew up in similar situations to her, she said she was “baffled.”

“This would be incredibly problematic,” Sanguinetti said. “I’m just baffled by what’s driving J.B. Pritzker on this. How could you take away this kind of opportunity for children who are in underserved neighborhoods?”

“These sort of scholarships are the only way that could put these children at a level playing field. ...This is an opposition to opportunity.”

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'People Are Going To Be Affected If This Thing Disappears'

In the meantime, Hernandez said he’s eager to find out if his family will be awarded a scholarship, but remains worried by political threats to immediately dismantle it.

For those who have applied and support the scholarship program, Hernandez said he would encourage them to call their representatives and to share information by word of mouth how harmful removing this program would be for low-income families seeking a private or Catholic education.

“If more people [tell politicians], ‘Hey, if you’re really going to go this route, you can’t count on my vote,’ then they start to worry the more people say it,” Hernandez said.

While Hernandez said he would most likely continue to send his kids to Catholic school despite the cost if the program were eliminated because it’s so important to he and his wife, it would likely cost the working family any kind of summer vacation. It’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make, but hopes he didn’t have to.

“Without that scholarship money, I’m like ‘Ok well now I’m back in the same boat in that I was last year; I have to make ends meet, we’re not going to go on vacation anywhere this year; I still have bills to pay,’” he said. “That’s one of the first things the kids notice. We joke about it, but my oldest kid kind of understands. He says, ‘One day I want to go to Disney again,’ because we took him when he was in kindergarten.”

He also worries about the families who may see the scholarship program as their only way into private school and what would happen if they applied, only to see the scholarship rescinded later in the fall.

“I’d love to see how many people chose a private education or a Catholic education who may not have had it not been for this tax scholarship program,” Hernandez said. “That’s big, because those are the people that are going to be affected if this thing disappears. It’s hard because I’ve been making sacrifices for nine years, since I first decided to send my Children to Catholic school, but for somebody that has help, and you take it away...what good is that going to do?”

 
 
 
Jennifer Maine