Keep public funds out of private schools

Why should public funds go to private schools when they can discriminate?

In 2007, the family of a teenage boy called the ACLU of Maryland because the boy had been expelled from a religious school for being gay. In 2008, the mother of an adopted daughter sought our help because other students at a religious school were taunting the girl for being from another country, and the school could not — or would not — stop the harassment. In 2010, the family of a girl at another religious school reached out to the ACLU because the girl had been sent home after she acknowledged — in response to questioning from school officials — that she thought she was attracted to other girls; she was given a weekend to reconsider her sexuality and then expelled. Again, in 2010, a legislator contacted us after hearing from a parochial school teacher who had been fired when the school learned she had married her partner, a woman.

These stories often surprise people. It does not seem to be generally well known that it is perfectly legal (with a couple of very narrow exceptions) for private and religious schools to discriminate in hiring and in school admissions on the basis of gender, disability, sexual orientation and so on. The state's anti-discrimination laws do not cover these schools. They choose whom they hire and the children they admit. And by definition they can be choosy. They do not have to justify to the public whether or not they admit children with minimal or severe learning issues, who speak English as a second language, who have low-test scores or are "discipline problems." Other schools go even further, as illustrated by the opening stories.

Gov. Larry Hogan has proposed at the 11th hour in the budget process to create a new program, diverting $5 million dollars to support private and religious schools. These schools can discriminate if they choose — but should we have to support that discrimination with our tax dollars? And, incredible as it seems, the program is set up as a grant program for businesses to get reimbursed for giving funding to organizations that would then send the money to pay expenses charged by the private schools. For every dollar a business donates, the state reimburses it 50 cents. (And the business still gets to write it off as a tax deduction!) This will reduce funding available for public school children, including all the children who could not get into a private school or got kicked out.

Governor Hogan's funding bill has all the markings of one that could fly through virtually incognito and become law in the waning days of Maryland's legislative session. (Lest you think that scenario hyperbolic, consider that in a similar method, capital funding for private school buildings was slipped into the 2013 budget at the last moment, without any hearing or public process.)

The ACLU of Maryland opposes this funding because this is personal for us — on behalf of the children we represent. We've spent over 20 years ensuring that the state of Maryland keep the promise in the 1867 Maryland State Constitution: that the state legislature must provide a "through and efficient" system of public schools for all the state's children. In 1994, ACLU of Maryland sued the state and in 2001 won a court ruling ordering increased funding, which catalyzed the "Thornton" law, which in turn increased state public education funding for all Maryland. We are proud of the benefits schoolchildren have received from this funding, and we are protective of the funding that so many pro-education legislators have fought for over the years — not to speak of this year when legislators worked to restore millions that had been slashed in Governor Hogan's initial budget.

Public funding should not be diverted to private schools. It is public schools that embrace all students, no matter who they are. We trust that the General Assembly is poised to reject this last-minute grant program to businesses that donate in support of private and religious schools. This would be a big loss for public schools and to equity and fairness for students, teachers and families. Education funds should stay in Maryland's public school system, where the schools take all comers.

Sara Love is the ACLU of Maryland's public policy director. Her email is love@aclu-md.org.

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