The Senate gave preliminary approval today to a bill that would allow businesses to receive $5 million in tax credits for sponsoring scholarships at private schools.

In about 30 minutes of often-contentious debate on the chamber floor, lawmakers struck down multiple attempts to water down or limit the bill, which opponents say amounts to a public subsidy of private schools.


Calling the bill a "sham" that will "chip away at public education in Maryland," Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat, urged her colleagues to defeat the measure.

But Baltimore Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, a Democrat, said the proposal would benefit working class parents who struggle to send their children to religious and other non-public schools. "If you call that a sham, I'm shamming for children today," he said.

Under the bill, businesses would receive an income tax credit for 75 percent of their contributions to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships to students and teachers at private secondary schools.

The tax credit, which would be capped at $5 million a year, would also apply to donations made to certain public school programs, such as those that subsidize the cost of teachers' graduate schooling.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and parochial school principal, said the "little tax credit" would save the state money by allowing more students to afford private schools. "There are 136,000 students in Maryland who attend private schools," Stoltzfus said. "It would cost an extra $1.5 billion to educate those students" in the public system.

McFadden noted that the state already spends millions of dollars a year on higher education grants to private colleges and universities.

Richard S. Madaleno Jr., a Montgomery County Democrat who opposes the bill, argued that if the state wants to increase subsidies to public elementary and secondary schools — it already buys books for some private campuses — it should do so explicitly. "If we want to do vouchers, let's just do vouchers," said Madaleno.

Lawmakers voted down three amendments proposed by Madaleno. They would have placed a 3-year sunset on the bill, reduced the tax credit amount, and restricted the tax credit to scholarship programs at schools with a minimum threshold of poor students.

Senators also rejected an amendment by Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Mongtomery County Democrat, that would require the beneficiaries of the scholarships to be subject to the same state testing regimen as public school students.

The House of Delegates has not voted on the bill.