A coalition of religious and anti-abortion groups yesterday accused the state Department of Education of trying to start school health clinics behind parents' backs.
The Coalition for Parental Rights and Family Integrity charged that the clinics would distribute contraceptives and counsel children about birth control. By seeking funds from a private foundation to start the clinics, the coalition said, the state deliberately went around parents and legislators.
But a Department of Education official said the group's criticism was premature and misinformed.
Spokesman Ron Pieffer said the state had applied for a $2.3 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on behalf of seven school systems: Allegany, Caroline, Talbot, Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, and Baltimore City.
The state is asking for $100,000 in planning money from the Princeton-based foundation. If approved, it would then be eligible for $2.2 million to start and run four health clinics in two school districts.
Mr. Pieffer said that none of the school systems' proposals addressed contraception. Moreover, local communities would decide for themselves what services the clinics would offer. "It's clearly not an end run around communities," Mr. Pieffer said. "It is a very well-thought-out process. The community can design the type of program it would like to have for its children."
The coalition is composed of 30 groups, including the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Family Protection Lobby and Maryland Right to Life.
Baltimore started 10 health clinics in middle and high schools in 1990. Although they distribute contraceptives, the move generated little fanfare at the time.
There are four other school health clinics in Maryland, Mr. Pieffer said. Baltimore and Prince George's counties have one each, while Montgomery County has clinics in two elementary schools. Mr. Pieffer said he did not know what services those clinics provide.
Maryland is one of 40 states to apply for a grant from the foundation, which plans to establish four school health clinics in each of 10 states. Earlier this year, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick invited Maryland's 24 school systems to submit proposals for funds. Mr. Pieffer said the foundation is expected to make a decision on the applications in the next few months.
Despite the state's assurances about public participation, coalition members remained skeptical yesterday.
Dick Dowling, executive directorof the Maryland Catholic Conference, said bills regarding school health clinics have died or been withdrawn in the last several years because of public outcry.
By turning to a private foundation, he said, the Schaefer administration appeared to be trying to do something the legislature has rejected.
"To suggest that this has been an open process up to now . . . is just so much smoke as far as we're concerned," Mr. Dowling said.