Hogan proposes to boost funding for private school scholarships

Gov. Larry Hogan wants to boost taxpayer funding for private school scholarships.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced plans Tuesday to double the funding for a program that helps students pay for private school tuition.

The state-funded scholarship program would gradually increase over three years from $5 million currently to $10 million under Hogan's plan.

The governor visited Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Baltimore County to make the announcement, which was greeted with a standing ovation from students and teachers from Bais Yaakov and other Jewish day schools.

"I knew I came to the right audience," Hogan said.

The money would be a fraction of Maryland's $42 billion budget, but the proposal comes as state lawmakers have warned of the need to pare back spending.

Last week, top Democratic lawmakers predicted that deep spending cuts may be necessary to close a roughly $400 million budget gap. Hours after the governor's announcement Tuesday, legislative leaders voted to recommend Hogan cut $189 million from next year's spending plan and suggested he trim about $200 million from the current budget.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said the private school tuition program, begun this year, hasn't been evaluated. She predicted there would be a legislative fight over whether to keep it, let alone expand it.

"At this point, I cannot endorse an expansion of a program that's been in place for one year that has had no evaluation on its impact to schools or students. There will be a big push not to do it," she said.

The governor said 3,000 scholarships were awarded this year to low-income private school students through the program, called Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, or BOOST.

More than 700 students at Jewish day schools — including 209 at Bais Yaakov — received scholarships.

More than 5,000 students applied for scholarship money. The governor called that an indication "that there were many more deserving of help."

Elizabeth A. Green, an attorney who is active in Jewish organizations including Bnos Yisroel school in Baltimore, said the scholarship program has had a "tremendous impact on our community."

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, president of the Maryland chapter of the Council for American Private Education, said the schools expect to receive their first checks from the program shortly.

McIntosh, who said she supports the program, says it needs to be evaluated before the state puts more money into it. She said it was unclear whether the $5 million in tax dollars helped new students attend private schools or merely supplanted private scholarships awarded to current students.

Public school advocates criticized the governor's proposal.

The Maryland State Education Association, which represents public school teachers, issued a statement calling the program a "Trump-like initiative that sends taxpayer money from public schools to private schools."

MSEA President Betty Weller said Hogan needs to fill gaps in funding for public schools, not subsidize private schools.

"The governor's alliance with President-elect Donald Trump — who has proposed the idea of using $20 billion in taxpayer money for private school vouchers — on privatizing our public schools should be alarming to every Maryland who believes in the importance of public education," Weller said in a statement.

Maryland's program was created with funding in place for one school year, giving state lawmakers the option of extending or discontinuing it.

Hogan's announcement shows his intention to keep the program going. He predicted the General Assembly would approve the funding increase because the scholarships are popular in many quarters.

Some lawmakers have tried to get similar legislation passed for nearly a decade. Del. Antonio Hayes and Del. Keith Haynes, both Baltimore Democrats, backed legislation during this year's session that would have created a program to help low-income students pay private school tuition. The bills failed, but the legislature approved money Hogan placed in the budget for the BOOST program.

"It got passed last year after nine years of trying. ... Everybody thinks it's a great program now and working very well," Hogan said in an interview. "We're hopeful we can get it increased. It's been terrific."

In addition to BOOST, the state spends about $10 million on private schools, including $3.5 million for construction projects and $6 million to buy textbooks and classroom technology.

Lawmakers return to Annapolis on Jan. 11 for their annual 90-day session.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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