More than 500 public school students in Maryland were able to attend private schools this year through a controversial new program that offers state grants of up to $4,400 to help defray tuition costs, state education officials say.
But most students helped by the program — more than 1,900 — used the money to remain in private schools where they were already enrolled. The data is likely to be used as ammunition by opponents of the program, who argue it isn't meeting its stated objective of helping low-income students leave underperforming public schools.
"Data now shows that 78 percent of students participating in the ... program were already in private schools," said Sean Johnson, legislative director of the Maryland State Education Association, the union representing most state teachers. "It merely subsidizes private schools with taxpayer dollars that could be going to public schools."
Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly agreed last year to create the $5 million program, called BOOST, for Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today. Proponents call them assistance scholarships, but similar awards are called vouchers in other states.
Now the legislature must decide whether to keep the program or even expand it as Hogan has proposed, growing it to $10 million over the next three years. The debate will gear up in the General Assembly just as Betsy DeVos, a champion of vouchers, is expected to be confirmed as the next U.S. secretary of education. DeVos and President-elect Donald Trump would like to provide federal dollars for vouchers.
Catholic and Jewish school leaders say the money is giving valuable assistance to low-income parents who choose their schools either because they want religious education or because they feel public schools are not a good fit for their children. They point out that each year there is a far greater need for tuition help than their schools can offer.
They also say even more public school families might have applied for money from the popular program if it had been better publicized. Word had spread through the private school community, prompting many applications from those families.
"Our parents were very excited about this. Making a decision to send a child to a private school is a personal decision," said Sandy Nissel, chief executive officer of Bais Yaakov School, a girls Jewish school on Smith Avenue in Baltimore. About 200 students got $291,000 in tuition payments at Bais Yaakov, the second greatest amount of any school in the state. Students at Al Huda School, a Muslim school in College Park, received 155 scholarships and $311,000, the greatest amount of any school in the state.
Low-income students at 177 schools — nearly all of them religiously affiliated — received tuition subsidies. The awards ranged from $4,400 for those with the lowest incomes coming from public schools to just $1,000 for students whose families were less needy and at private schools already. A board established by the legislature wrote guidelines for handing out the payments. Money was first given to children in public schools, then to those already in a private school.
Students could not get money to go to private schools with tuitions higher than roughly $14,000.
While the Jewish community raises money and makes as many scholarships available as it can, the need is always greater, said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, president of the Maryland chapter of the Council for American Private Education.
Catholic schools run by the Baltimore archdiocese also benefited, receiving $1.1 million in scholarship support and 150 new students. About 85 percent of students in archdiocese schools are not Catholic. Church officials describe the schools' mission as helping the community.
"The families want school choice to attend archdiocesan schools," said Jim Sellinger, chancellor of education for the Baltimore archdiocese. He argues strong public and private school systems are needed in the state. "If the program were to expand, I think we would get more applications," Sellinger said. "We just got our toe in the water."
Bukola Edmondson-Deigh was one of the 4,000 parents who applied last year for assistance. Her son Kunmi started in public school as a pre-kindergartener but is now at the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills. Edmondson-Deigh had already enrolled her elder son in the school when she lost her job last year.
She didn't feel she and her husband could afford the tuition for a second, she said, until she heard from the principal that some BOOST funds might be available.
"I just like the academic excellence they have here," she said, adding that the reading, writing and math instruction is strong, and technology is woven into the lessons but is balanced. "They are teaching children to be kind and good citizens."
For the Rev. John Austin, head of Trinity Lutheran Christian School in Joppa, the vouchers meant the addition of about 10 students whose families could not have afforded to attend. "We serve a community in which quality education is very much needed, and so these are really needy students who are incidentally excelling," Austin said.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she needs more information before deciding whether to support continuing or expanding the program. In part, she wants to know whether tax dollars are being used to supplant money schools were already spending on tuition assistance.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the administration has "no reason to believe that is happening. The administration's view is that this has been tremendously successful in helping struggling families send their children to schools where they will succeed."
Sellinger said the archdiocese has not reduced its tuition support for needy families.
The Baltimore school system is one of the few in the state that has welcomed school choice in the form of charters, but even leaders there say they are concerned that vouchers will sap dollars from public schools. City school officials estimated they lost 300 students because the children got BOOST money to attend private schools. The system loses state aid when it loses students.
Of the 2,464 students getting money from the program this year, about 750 are city residents and 533 live in Baltimore County.
While each of the schools will be required to give standardized tests in certain grades to BOOST recipients, there is no requirement that they report the results to the state or that the students meet certain achievement levels. The board that oversees BOOST recommends the legislature clarify the testing requirements. It is an issue that may become central to the debate over the program, according to the union.
"Study after study shows voucher programs fail to boost the academic achievement of participants — and often make it worse," said Johnson.