Three of Jasmine Bland's five children have been able to attend St. Patrick's Catholic School, and she hopes state lawmakers continue to help low-income families like hers afford high-quality educational options.
"The culture there is more like family, which I prefer," said Bland, a single parent who lives with her children on Springfield's east side, works a minimum-wage job and recently began a second job waiting tables.
Bland, 41, said she wants to make sure her children have access to Catholic schools even though she and her kids aren't Catholic because she has seen her children face more distractions in public schools.
Officials from St. Patrick's – a prekindergarten through fifth-grade school and a stable presence in its east side Springfield neighborhood since 1910 – hope the Illinois General Assembly listens to Bland and other parents like her.
They said the Invest In Kids Scholarship Tax Credit Program has helped put the private school at 1800 South Grand Ave. E. on the road to financial stability after years of struggle. They are worried because the program, created in 2017, is scheduled to end in January 2024 unless Capitol lawmakers take action during the fall veto session in October and November.
"I'm very concerned about it," said Sister Marilyn Jean Runkel, a member of the Dominican order and a longtime St. Patrick's board member who previously was director of Catholic education for the Diocese of Springfield.
St. Patrick's needs Invest In Kids to ensure its long-term stability, she said, though she knows some advocates of public education, including teachers unions, oppose the program and contend it potentially diverts state funding away from public schools. Opponents of the program also note that private schools can choose not to provide special-education and other services public schools must provide.
"I understand there's not enough money for public education," Runkel said. "But it's a very small percentage of the budget."
Invest In Kids offers a 75% state income tax credit to individuals and businesses that contribute to qualified "scholarship granting organizations" that, in turn, provide scholarships to students whose families meet income requirements and attend qualified private schools and technical academies in Illinois.
Donors can specify that their money should be used for scholarships at certain schools.
Created in 2017 through the same bipartisan legislation that reformed the school funding formula, Invest In Kids was signed into law by former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. The current governor, Chicago Democrat JB Pritzker, has made statements indicating he would be willing to renew the program with tweaks that include a reduction in the state tax credit percentage.
The Democratic-controlled legislature didn't include renewal in the state fiscal 2024 budget it sent to Pritzker's desk and he signed into law. No Republicans voted for the budget, though some would have voted for it if Invest In Kids – a priority item for Republicans – were included, according to Senate Minority Leader John Curran, R-Downers Grove.
The program is assisting more than 9,000 students across the state, and even more could benefit if the program were continued, Curran said. Current law caps annual maximum donations at $100 million, resulting in up to $75 million in tax credits.
Donations haven't reached the caps thus far. There were $76 million in contributions made, and $57 million in tax credits given, in 2022.
"We are in full support of extending the program," Curran said of his Senate Republican caucus.
He took issue with the notion that Democratic lawmakers would allocate more to public education if Invest In Kids were allowed to expire.
Curran said he is optimistic about the program's chances in the veto session. Families that live in Democrat-represented legislative districts and see the program as key to their kids' educational futures have been knocking on lawmakers' doors, he said.
An initial report from the Illinois State Board of Education on the academic impact of Invest In Kids on the students receiving scholarships is in the works but hasn't been released yet.
Curran said recent news that the president of the Chicago Teachers Union decided to send one of her children to a private high school highlights the need for low- and moderate-income families to have access to the same educational opportunities for their kids that people with more money enjoy.
More than two-thirds of students receiving scholarships through Invest In Kids in the 2022-23 school year were from families with incomes less than 185% of the federal poverty level, or less than $55,500 a year for a family of four, according to an Illinois Department of Revenue report. Forty percent of the families had incomes below the poverty line.
In Sangamon County, 179 students are receiving Invest In Kids scholarships, and 261 are on a waiting list for a scholarship, based on information from Empower Illinois, one of the nonprofits administering scholarships.
Almost all of St. Patrick's 45 students in kindergarten through fifth grade have qualified for full or partial Invest In Kids scholarships in the 2023-24 academic year, according to Kris Cavanagh, the school's advancement director.
Any students who fail to qualify for the scholarship won't have to pay anything other than a $40 annual registration fee because the shortfall will be covered by private donations from individuals and area organizations, Cavanagh said.
The support through Invest In Kids will end after this school year if the program isn't extended, Cavanagh said.
St. Patrick's Principal Michael Carlson believes the school would be able to continue operating with private donations if the program went away. But Runkel said the school needs the Invest In Kids money so St. Patrick's, which has an annual budget of about $800,000, doesn't have to constantly worry about survival.
When St. Patrick's first opened 113 years ago, it primarily served white Irish Catholics, Carlson said. Almost all of its current students are African American or of mixed-race heritage, and only a few are Catholic.
But Carlson said families who send their children to St. Patrick's see the value of a Christian education and classes of 15 or fewer students in a school with Christian standards of "respect, responsibility and safety, and also praying for each other."
"Our story at St. Pat's from the beginning through today is about adapting to the needs of this community," he said. "The neighborhood changed, but there's a need for an affordable education for working-class families, and that's what we're responding to."
The school was affiliated with St. Patrick's Parish until January 2001, when that parish merged with Sacred Heart Parish to form St. Katherine Drexel Parish. Later that year, the school became an independent entity governed by a nonprofit organization and a board.
The school property continues to be owned by the Springfield diocese, and the bishop has a say over the school's mission and philosophy, Runkel said. The school, which almost closed in 2010 because of financial difficulties, receives donations from the diocese, parishes, private organizations and individuals, Cavanagh said.
Teresa Mattsson, 63, retired earlier this year after a 21-year career in Springfield District 186, but she wasn't done with teaching. She decided to return to the field to teach a St. Patrick's classroom with third- and fourth-graders this school year.
"We have a great curriculum and great instruction," Mattsson said.
She said the smaller class sizes at St. Patrick's help her meet her students' needs, and teachers have more freedom in carrying out the curriculum than they do in District 186.
"I don't have the stress that I used to have, and my demeanor is more relaxed," she said. "I'm smiling more."