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Maryland bill seeks to use the pandemic to gut public school funding, transfer money to private schools | COMMENTARY

Peter Kannam, principal of Henderson-Hopkins School, talks with a student in a 5-7 grade classroom. Henderson-Hopkins Safe Center for Online Learning is a partnership with the Y in Central Maryland for 100 of the school's students grades K-7. October 14, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)
Peter Kannam, principal of Henderson-Hopkins School, talks with a student in a 5-7 grade classroom. Henderson-Hopkins Safe Center for Online Learning is a partnership with the Y in Central Maryland for 100 of the school's students grades K-7. October 14, 2020. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun) (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

When it comes to public education, it sometimes seems as if there are two distinct camps: those who are generally supportive of public schools, recognize that they are vital to the collective well-being of the country, and help reduce inequalities and prepare individuals to be productive members of society; and those who believe that they are an enormous tax burden, despite the racism and classism that suggests.

A misguided piece of legislation that received a public hearing in the House of Delegates this month takes up one idea the latter camp often raises about public school systems — vouchers that would allow the transfer of tax dollars from public schools to private institutions. But House Bill 939 adds a new twist to the traditional voucher plan: Under the legislation, students who would normally attend a public school that fails to offer full-time, in-person instruction by the first day of school this fall would qualify for a grant to attend an open, “nonpublic” school equal to one pupil’s share of state funding. That amounts to thousands of dollars taken away from the theoretical public school system and transferred to the private school. And here’s another twist: the student who qualifies for this grant in the 2021-2022 school year would automatically qualify for the same amount until he or she graduates from high school or turns 21.

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You can see the Betsy DeVos talking points at work here. This is “school choice” that theoretically gives public schools an incentive to do better. And conservatives are especially frustrated that some public systems haven’t reopened. Add in their opposition to the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the school reform bill vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan that recently became law thanks to a legislative override, and the antagonism toward public education screams out.

It’s just another voucher plan with a pandemic twist, which makes it all the more outrageous. Think this is the path toward better public schools in the middle of a public health crisis? Clearly not. What it might do is give more affluent families an extra incentive to switch to private schools if their subdivision continues to struggle with high COVID-19 positivity rates, the chief criteria for not having in-person instruction. What a great way to foster inequity — to abandon society’s best chance to overcome inequity at this incredibly vulnerable moment.

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Let’s be clear: We acknowledge all kinds of problems with under-performing public schools and support genuine efforts to improve them — and to increase accountability of those responsible for them. But critics who claim the legislation developed by the Kirwan Commission just “throws money” at the problem haven’t read the report or the law. The Blueprint isn’t just about spending more, it’s about doing more, and that requires resources. One of the greatest challenges facing school systems is how to teach children coming from families and neighborhoods struggling with the effects of substance abuse, trauma, family dysfunction, racism and concentrated poverty. Do you think helping these kids means spending less? Or subsidizing schools that can’t or won’t help these youngsters? What’s needed are more services from pre-K instruction to student counseling to attracting the best into teaching. And spending money on such efforts is certain to be cost-effective if it means fewer kids end up in the prison pipeline or jobless on the streets and without useful skills.

Republicans love their vouchers. It’s become a mantra for them. And the bill’s sponsor, Del. Lauren Arikan, a Republican representing District 7 in Harford and Baltimore counties, is in her first term in the House of Delegates. The mother of three told the Capital News Service that she was motivated by the “heartbreaking posts” she’s read about children unable to deal with remote learning. They often involved “children with all different types of learning styles crying as they sat at the computer day after day.” She’s right, those are heartbreaking posts. And we are hopeful that Maryland school systems will return to classrooms sooner than September. But the answer to making schools better isn’t to gut their funding or give affluent families greater incentive to leave them. It’s to do the hard work of fighting COVID-19, so remote learning isn’t necessary or working through programs like Kirwan to help raise standards for all schools.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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