By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 19, 2010
As students gathered their school supplies, prepared their uniforms and anticipated their first day of school, many Catholic school students and their families from across the archdiocese were counting their blessings.
Thanks to the GRACE Scholars program, almost 200 students across the state are attending a Catholic school for the first time this year.
GRACE, which stands for Georgia Residents Assisting Children’s Education, is the student scholarship organization that was established by the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah. The program is one of about 20 organizations that distribute scholarships when Georgia taxpayers redirect part of their state income tax to the student organizations. The payment is a tax credit against their state tax bill.
Taxpayers or corporations who give to a scholarship organization can get a dollar-for-dollar credit against state income taxes. For example, a married couple donating the $2,500 maximum for couples can lower their state tax bill by $2,500. Individual taxpayers are limited to $1,000, and corporations, up to 75 percent of their state taxes. In other words, taxpayers get their entire donation back as a credit when they file their taxes.
In two years, the program has already helped more than 240 students whose families could not otherwise afford Catholic education, said Rick Medina, director of GRACE Scholars.
“The amount of scholarships we’ve provided equal about a small- or medium-sized school. What makes us unique is when we give scholarships we not only give it for the year the student is attending, but we set aside money for the student to complete his or her education at the particular school,” Medina said. “For example, if a student receives a scholarship when entering ninth grade, we set aside money until graduation. The students and their families can take comfort that as long as they continue with eligibility requirements, the money will be there to complete the student’s education.”
In 2008, its first year, GRACE brought in more than $86,000 to help with tuition for students who newly entered Catholic schools throughout the state of Georgia. In 2009, nearly $2.9 million was directed to the program through more than 1,300 donors.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said he is grateful to the people of Georgia for helping students receive a Catholic education.
“These youngsters come from families whose financial situation would not have allowed them this advantage without the wonderful support of our people in response to this opportunity. Our Catholic schools are outstanding—each year they receive more well-deserved recognition of their fine work in educating and forming young people,” the archbishop said. “Now because of the GRACE scholarship initiative, more deserving youngsters will be able to take advantage of a Catholic school education. Our schools themselves will benefit from having more students who will help these schools extend their outreach of educational excellence to a wider community of young people. Thanks to all of the people in Georgia who have contributed to GRACE. I hope all of those who redirected some of their state tax dollars to this wonderful program will encourage others to do the same next year.”
Diane Starkovich, archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, said GRACE helps the church by giving a Catholic education to those who will one day be leading the world.
“There is no doubt that a Catholic education changes the future of students. Until GRACE Scholars was formed, many qualified students were unable to attend our schools. With the numerous scholarships being awarded this fall, students who never dreamed of attending our schools will be receiving not only instruction in our Catholic faith, but they will also be receiving an academic education second to none,” she said. “Across this country, 97 percent of Catholic school graduates attend college. Certainly, our Catholic schools open the door to post-secondary education and a wide variety of career opportunities.”
Patty Childs, principal of St. Jude the Apostle School in Sandy Springs, said eight students are attending her school because of GRACE Scholars.
“GRACE is a win-win for everybody. As a taxpayer, I got to spend my tax dollars as I wanted rather than how the politicians wish to spend the money,” she said. “As a Catholic who enjoyed a Catholic education and was also fortunate to provide a Catholic education for my son, I am delighted to foster the tradition and help to provide a little help to a family who desires the same for their child.”
Medina, who recently became the director of GRACE, said he enjoyed a Jesuit Catholic education and is passionate about his work with the program.
“Time and time again Catholic schools have come out on top not only nationally but also internationally in providing the best quality education. Our Catholic schools not only provide a well-rounded education, but they also serve a vital mission for the Church,” he said. “The Church has come to recognize that our Catholic schools are one of the best means of passing on the Good News and preparing our children for adult life.”
Medina, who also serves as the director of faith formation at St. Andrew Church in Roswell, is in his third year of formation for the diaconate. He noted that GRACE Scholars is the result of the 2008 passing of Georgia House Bill 1133, which allows $50 million of tax money to be used annually toward private education.
“I took on the leadership role in GRACE Scholars in order to get the message across to our Catholic faithful about what it means not to participate in GRACE Scholars. Last year $27 million of the $50 million was used. Unfortunately, our Catholic schools received less than $3 million of that,” he said.
“If our Catholic faithful at the parish level do not participate in this program and all $50 million are used up every year—in five short years, other faith denominations will teach our children in their faith with tax money we would be paying anyway,” he added. “There will be more children educated in other faith denominations than are attending all of our Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Savannah combined. This has serious implications to our faith. For me personally, GRACE Scholars is much more than simply directing tax money to private schools. It’s about evangelization and spreading the message of the one, holy Catholic and apostolic church.”
Medina is tasked with an aggressive goal of raising $10 million by 2012 for the program. He hopes Catholics in the pews will see the necessity of the program and see it as a way to “spread the Gospel.”
“There is no reason as a community of faith why we can’t speak with an overwhelming voice and make the statement, ‘We care about the future of our children. We want them educated in the Catholic faith.’ We can make that statement when an overwhelming majority of our Catholic faithful decide they want to use a portion of their tax dollars to help students in need, our Catholic schools, and ultimately, our Catholic faith.”