President Bush's proposal to provide $300 million in scholarships to children in failing schools has redrawn the old lines in Maryland between voucher advocates who argue that parochial schools offer a good option for some poor children and those who see them as an attempt to undermine public education.
In his State of the Union address Monday night, Bush said he would ask Congress to support the package, which would be called Pell Grants for Kids.
"This is a voucher program that is intended to support parochial and private schools under the guise of helping low-income children," said Bebe Verdery, education director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
City school board President Brian Morris and others said the mandates in the federal No Child Left Behind law have received little federal funding and required large local expenditures.
"I think it is an amazing idea given the fact that this is a president who has increased levels of accountability for public schools ... without increasing funding," he said. Morris called giving students incentives to go to private schools "a high degree of hypocrisy."
But Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Baltimore area, said the issue should not be viewed as public schools versus private schools.
"Can we focus on the need of the child rather than the political turmoil that it causes?" he asked. He said many children are denied access to a parochial school education in the city because they are not able to pay the cost.
The Catholic schools have raised $10 million from businesses and private donations over the past seven years to give scholarships to poor children who want to attend, Valenti said.
Catholic schools, he said, are taking in the same impoverished students from Baltimore neighborhoods as the public schools. And parents are looking for a good alternative to the public schools, he said. "They see the Catholic school as an environment where it is conducive for them to learn."
The current Bush proposal would provide money only to poor children in schools that have not met federal No Child Left Behind standards for the past five years or have a graduation rate of less than 60 percent.
In Maryland, most of those schools are in Baltimore.
The U.S. Department of Education would award states, cities or local school systems funds that could be used for tuition. The money would pay for a portion of the student's cost of attending another public school out of the student's school district or a private or faith-based school.
Bush also is proposing a $800 million fund for scholarships for students who need after-school or summer school programs. In addition, the White House announced it would hold a summit on inner-city children and faith-based schools. They point out that the minority population in Catholic schools is rising quickly, although Catholic schools have been closing.
Few people in public education support the voucher plan.
State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she does not support the proposal. "We support public education because it is the crucible of our democracy," she said.
Much of the opposition to the president's proposals is among those who believe the money would be better spent by public schools.
Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said yesterday that he doesn't oppose voucher programs in concept.
"I will never stand in the way of children getting the resources they need," Hairston said. But "a voucher system should not supplant the needs of the public school system. We need to protect the interests of public education. We need some guarantees that those dollars would not be diverted from those funds for public school systems." Hairston added that school systems, including Baltimore County's, already struggle to meet "unfunded mandates" associated with No Child Left Behind.
Verdery and others point out that it would be unfair to give money to private schools that don't have to meet the same standards as public schools.
"Private and parochial schools don't have to accept children with disabilities. They don't have to meet state standards for certification of teachers or state standards in terms of test results," she said.
But Howard County public schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the issue would be defused if the public schools improved.
"Public schools need to do everything they can to maintain a very high quality of education," she said. "When we're able to do that, vouchers become a nonissue."
Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the Maryland State Teachers Association, said vouchers have received little support nationally. Voters in Utah recently defeated a referendum that would have allowed vouchers. In addition, vouchers have not received a lot of support in Congress by either Democrats or moderate Republicans, he said, so it might be difficult to get passed.
"I do not support his most recent proposal, which would divert limited taxpayer dollars from the public school system just when they are most needed," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in a statement.
Sun reporters Gina Davis and John-John Williams IV contributed to this article.