New scholarship options for local Catholic students
Since last school year, the Office of Catholic Schools has identified a new source of tuition funding that is a win-win situation for parents needing tuition assistance to afford a Catholic school education for their children and those wanting to donate money to support it.
Called the Louisiana Tuition Donation Rebate (TDR) program, it is a source for nonpublic school scholarships gained from donations by Louisiana taxpayers that the state made available in 2013-14 school year to give more school choice to parents of qualified students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It is important to me that people who want a Catholic education can get a Catholic education, so we appreciate this initiative,” Office of Catholic Schools superintendent Dr. Jan Lancaster said of the Tuition Donation Rebate Program.
Criteria to apply
Dr. RaeNell Houston, Office of Catholic Schools associate superintendent of elementary school curriculum/professional development and TerraNova testing, said basic qualifications to receive a scholarship from TDR are that a student has to live in Louisiana; has to have attended a state public school in the previous year or is entering kindergarten for the first time; and the student’s family has to meet income guidelines (250 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is $59,625 for a family of four).
Local parents do not apply for tuition scholarships through the state or the Office of Catholic Schools. They apply through two tax-exempt, nonprofit school tuition organizations – ACE Scholarships Louisiana and Arete Scholars – approved by the state Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for the New Orleans area, Houston said.
School tuition organizations provide parents with a list of participating schools approved by state Board of Education.
In the 2015-16 school year, 35 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans were approved to participate in the TDR program, Houston said, and more than 350 students have been awarded scholarships. Six students took advantage of the Tuition Donation Rebate Program for archdiocesan schools the year before, Houston said.
State scholarships vs. TDR
The Office of Catholic Schools chose to embrace this program because it has additional benefits over the Louisiana Scholarship Program, first established in 2008 to give low-income families a choice in education for their children.
While both scholarships are awarded quarterly, there are differences between the state scholarship program and the new TDR program, including:
➤ 1. The state awards state-funded scholarships to Louisiana students entering kindergarten or enrolled in a public school with a C, D or F grade ranking; school tuition organizations award Tuition Donation Rebate (TDR) scholarships to qualifying students who wish to attend a private schools with private donations.
➤ 2. The Louisiana Scholarship Program covers all tuition and fees; parents receiving Tuition Donation Rebate scholarships may be required to pay the difference between the scholarship and school’s actual tuition and fees.
➤ 3. Parents apply to the state for the Louisiana Scholarship Program; parents apply to Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) for the Tuition Donation Rebate Program.
➤ 4. Schools that accept students through the Tuition Donation Rebate Program can impose their admission standards. That is not the case with scholarship students.
“This (TDR) program is more attractive, especially by our high schools, because they can apply their admission standards,” Houston said. “No one wants to admit a child that they know is academically deficient and won’t be successful. We don’t want to set kids up for failure. We want to set them up for success.”
➤ 5. While STOs review performance, the participating schools don’t get graded by the state as they do in the scholarship program. Using their own standards, STOs have the authority to stop sending tuition if a school isn’t meeting established standards.
➤ 6. Students enrolled in private schools through the Louisiana Scholarship Program are required to take state assessments in science, social studies, math and English and language arts. Students receiving scholarships through the Tuition Donation Rebate Program are required to take state assessments in English and language arts and math.
The Tuition Donation Rebate Program allows more students needing some form of tuition assistance to attend a Catholic high school, since high schools that didn’t previously participate in the state scholarship program are open to the TDR scholarship.
Students enrolled in a private school on the Louisiana Scholarship Program (commonly known as tuition vouchers) may also apply. If a TDR scholarship is then approved, parents have to decide which scholarship program is better for them.
“Our goal is to help elementary students on scholarship to participate in Catholic high schools,” Houston said. “We see this as a way to bridge the gap between elementary and high schools, and ultimately to give anyone an opportunity to attend a Catholic high school.”
Houston said the Office of Catholic Schools has asked high schools involved with the TDR program to be mindful of the difference between TDR scholarship awards and the total tuition and admissions fees charged, since parents pay the difference.
Ways that high schools are addressing the tuition gap is creating work/study programs, providing financial assistance or directing parents to apply for the Champion of Education funds that were established in the 2015-16 year through the Office of Catholic Schools.
“We know the need for financial assistance is there,” said Houston, who worked with Peter Quirk, development director of the archdiocesan office of Stewardship and Development assigned to the Office of Catholic Schools to support fund-raising initiatives for Catholic schools. “What Peter Quirk is helping us do is raise additional funds for tuition assistance, especially for students already in our Catholic schools whose parents may have suffered a job loss or come into financial hardship. We want to make sure the children don’t fall through the cracks. We want them to continue to attend Catholic schools. We are working to establish a more stable amount of funds to help everyone in Catholic education.”
Quirk is visiting a lot of schools to inform them of the program.
“We are hoping to get all of our schools in the program and let them know about it,” Quirk said. “The archbishop is hoping to attract more Latino children in Catholic schools. The fact that they could apply and obtain a scholarship would be helpful to many families.”
Houston said both the state scholarship and TDR programs save the state money, considering the average tuition the state doles out for public school education is higher than what it pays for the per-student in tuition scholarships at a Catholic school.
How to obtain a scholarship
Donors who make an investment in the TDR program will receive – from the Louisiana Department of Revenue – a 95-percent rebate of their money after the end of the school year, usually within a year or so from the time the donation is initially made, Houston said. Up to 5 percent of every donation pays for administrative costs, according to the website Louisiana Believes (https://www.louisianabelieves.com/docs/school-choice/brochure---tuition-donation-rebate-program-for-donors.pdf?sfvrsn=4). The Louisiana Department of Education verifies that the STO used the money to fund student scholarships, then issues a receipt to the taxpayer for the rebate.
For example, she said, a $10,000 donation would reap a rebate of $9,500.
“It gives people an opportunity to contribute to something that will make a difference in the lives of kids,” Houston said.
Tuition money is available on a first-come, first-served basis and is capped at $4,147 per school year for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and $4,667 for students in ninth-12th grade.
ACE Scholarships joined Arete Scholars as an additional school-tuition organization distributing scholarships for the Tuition Donation Rebate program in the 2015-16 school year. While 400 students received the Tuition Donation Rebate award this year, 3,362 students accepted the state scholarship award.
Houston said the Office of Catholic Schools has formed a committee to work with School Tuition Organizations to actively raise funds to offset what the archdiocese contributes, but, she said, “it’s up to the STO to recruit the schools, families and get donors to donate to the program.”
The Office of Catholic Schools encourages interested parents to apply for both the state Scholarship Program and the Tuition Donation Rebate program and decide, once approved, which of the two tuition programs best suits their situation.
“I think it’s going to grow,” Houston said. “We might have $4 million this year, but I think there is potential for so much more.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.