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Alternative Fact of the Week: Gubernatorial debate edition

We realize the assembled delegates to the United Nations may disagree with us about what constitutes the most interesting (or, at least, hilarious) falsehood of late, but with all due respect to the most accomplished president at this point in his term in history (ahem), we bestow Alternative Fact of the Week honors on Gov. Larry Hogan for his assertion during Monday’s gubernatorial debate that Maryland’s system of scholarships for some students to attend private schools is the “Mike Busch-[Betsy] DeVos program.” Saying it was House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s idea is pretty much like calling him the father of Maryland’s slots program. Sure, in both cases, he eventually acceded to intense pressure from the governor and within his caucus to enact something, but only after almost single-handedly killing the idea for the better part of a decade.

On Monday, Democrat Ben Jealous was working to link Mr. Hogan to President Donald Trump in part by reminding voters of the governor’s visit to an elementary school with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “You keep sending money to private schools in the form of vouchers and touring around with Betsy DeVos,” Mr. Jealous said. Governor Hogan replied that his interaction with Ms. DeVos was limited to reading to elementary school kids one time. As for the vouchers, he said:

“The Betsy DeVos-Trump-Voucher Program wasn't my idea. It was Mike Busch's idea. He worked it out with the teachers union, was passed almost unanimously by Democratic legislators. I had a proposal that would give tax incentives for any donation of an individual or company that donates to a public or private school. Legislature shot that down. They switched it to scholarship programs for needy kids. I went along and signed the bill, but it wasn't my bill, and it's not the Hogan-DeVos voucher program. It's the Mike Busch-DeVos program.”

Here’s what actually happened. A group of advocates — chiefly from Catholic and Jewish schools — had been pushing for years for a program in which the state would give tax credits to companies that contribute to a fund supporting scholarships for students to attend private schools (secular or religious) or enrichment programs for public school students. Versions of it passed the Senate several times but died in the House, thanks in no small part to Mr. Busch’s antipathy for the bill. Mr. Hogan picked up the idea when he took office. In his first year, he tried to create such a program through a supplemental budget request. That went nowhere. In his second year, he put in legislation to create it and $5 million for it in the budget.

The bill didn’t so much as get a committee vote in the House, but Mr. Busch did get involved in figuring out how to handle the appropriation Mr. Hogan put in the budget. He changed it from a tax credit program to a straight appropriation of state aid and inserted several other requirements: ensuring that only children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch could get the aid; prohibiting schools with discriminatory policies from participating; mandating assessments; and changing the terms of an existing program that helped pay for private school textbooks. Part of Mr. Busch’s calculus was that handling the matter through the budget rather than in statute meant it would need to be re-evaluated every year. The teachers union — the Maryland State Education Association — did not sign off on the program. The group opposed it then and still does.

Mr. Hogan, however, championed it, so much so that six months later, he appeared at a Jewish day school in Baltimore County to announce that he would try to double the program to $10 million a year over three years. “Everybody thinks it's a great program now and working very well," Mr. Hogan said then. "We're hopeful we can get it increased. It's been terrific."

Shortly thereafter, the panel that oversees the program reported that about 80 percent of the students who got aid in that first year had already been enrolled in private schools, which had not been the legislature’s intent. The funding was preserved in the next year but not expanded. Subsequently, the program has evolved, and this year most of the money is going to students who were previously in public school. As to whether the program is improving outcomes for those students, it’s too early to tell. It has, however, run into some controversy based on the oversight committee’s decision to ban several schools from participation because of what it deemed discriminatory language in their student handbooks and policies.

One other education-related note from the debate: Mr. Jealous gets alt-fact runner up honors for accusing Mr. Hogan of raiding casino funds meant for education “like my 6-year-old raids a cookie jar.” We can’t speak for the cookie policies in the Jealous household, but Mr. Hogan has handled the Education Trust Fund established as part of the state’s gambling program exactly as the law requires and as it was designed and used by former Gov. Martin O’Malley and the Democratic majority of the legislature. If that’s not what Marylanders thought they were getting when they voted for slots and table games, that’s not Mr. Hogan’s fault. (Nor ours; we told you so!)

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