Maryland to help pay private school tuition

Some low-income Maryland parents will be able to enroll their children in private or parochial schools next fall using state-funded scholarships recently approved by lawmakers.

After a decade of failed attempts by school choice advocates to get voucher legislation passed, the General Assembly included $5 million in the state budget this session for the scholarship program.


"We think it is a great step," said Garrett O'Day, an associate director at the Maryland Catholic Conference. "We applaud any effort to expand educational options for low-income kids."

Depending on how much money each student is given, the program could potentially help more than 1,000 students attend a school of their choice.


Those who support the state's entry into vouchers say Catholic and Jewish schools often have better outcomes for their students than public schools. Giving low-income students, particularly those in Baltimore and Prince George's County, a choice of a better education is important, they say.

Proponents have tried unsuccessfully to get some form of a voucher program through the legislature for 10 years. This year two legislators — Del. Antonio Hayes and Del. Keith Haynes, both Baltimore Democrats — backed the bills, which again failed. But their support helped sway other lawmakers to support the budget proposal, legislators and advocates said.

Passage of the legislation would have guaranteed annual funding for the scholarships and ensured their future availability. Putting money in the budget for the year that begins July 1 means it is a one-time expenditure the legislature might not continue after this coming school year. The uncertainty about future funding means students might go to a private school for a year and then have to leave. And it might make parents wary about applying

Opponents of the voucher program — including teachers unions, local public school superintendents and school boards — are against it on the principle that public money shouldn't go to support private school tuition. Public schools, they say, compete for the same tax dollars. They point out that nearly $10 million is already spent to support private and parochial schools. Currently, the state spends $3.5 million for construction in the capital budget and $6 million to buy textbooks and technology for private schools.

"What we have seen in other states is that it is touted as something that will benefit low-income students, but it doesn't," said Sara Love, policy director at the ACLU of Maryland. She said of the 353 private schools that get money for textbooks, less than a third have large numbers of students living in poverty.

Maryland joins 30 states and the District of Columbia with some form of school choice program, ranging from a business tax credit to direct scholarships for students.

Around the country, students in voucher programs have not always done well, said Sean Johnson, government relations director of the Maryland State Education Association, which represents most of the state's teachers.

"They are fraught with poor results for the students they are purported to help," said Johnson.


Under language in the budget, the Maryland State Department of Education will write the rules for how the money will be divided. The scholarships must go to low-income students who want to attend a school where the tuition is less than $14,000, the average amount state and local governments spend per year on educating a public school student.

The debate over the issue is so fierce that the proponents and opponents cannot agree on what the new program should be called. Opponents say it is a voucher program, while opponents prefer to call it a scholarship fund. A national pro-voucher organization, the Friedman Foundation, has classified it as vouchers.

"I am pleased. We are calling this a very pleasant first step," said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, president of the Maryland chapter of the Council for American Private Education, which lobbied for the change and considers the tuition assistance a scholarship. "We have been pursuing tuition relief for 10 years."

He hopes lawmakers continue funding the program in the budget and eventually pass legislation to make it permanent.

Parents must apply to get the funds, and state education officials will rank them based on need and family income. An advisory board appointed by the legislature will then determine how many students receive money and the amount of the tuition scholarship.

Many of the schools likely to receive scholarship students are Catholic and Jewish schools. Independent schools such as Gilman, Bryn Mawr and the Park School would not qualify because their tuition is above $14,000 a year.


"I think the investment is worth it," said Philicia Rollins, the parent of three Baltimore County public school children and a city school teacher. She said some students in high-poverty, low-performing schools could benefit from the smaller class sizes and greater attention they receive in parochial schools. As a former Catholic school teacher she saw her students gain skills they might not have gotten in a public school.

Meanwhile the ACLU is concerned that Maryland will be giving taxpayers' money to Catholic schools that won't hire openly gay, lesbian and transgender teachers, and can easily fire them, despite the existence of state marriage equality laws.

"We are handing out millions of dollars to entities that are allowed to discriminate under the law," Love said.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore points out that the tuition scholarships will be given to students and their family, not directly to the school. The Catholic schools do not discriminate in the admission of students, but faculty are "expected to model behavior in keeping with the Catholic faith," said Sean Caine, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "We are not actively looking to censure teachers for any reason."

Caine did not comment on whether Catholic schools would hire an openly gay teacher.

Those on both sides of the debate expect it to continue next year, as the opponents try to ensure that the money is eliminated and opponents try to kill it.