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Don't boost BOOST just yet

For Baltimore-area Catholic schools, Maryland's new BOOST program, providing a limited number of scholarships for children from low-income families to attend private schools, has been a godsend. Long struggling with declining enrollments and aging buildings, the system secured enough funding through the new Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today program to help 712 students attend archdiocese and independent Catholic schools — a not insignificant share of the 25,000 students the system will educate this year. Consequently, the archdiocese has now begun to plan for strategic investments to improve educational opportunities for future students rather than just struggling to keep the doors open. And that just represents a small portion of the program's impact; Catholic schools accounted for about $1.5 million of the $5 million Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly allocated for the program, with the rest going to support students at a wide variety of religious and secular schools throughout the state.

There are several reasons taxpayers should care about that. Primarily, the issue is making sure the state is doing what it can to help every child succeed academically. For most, that means providing a high-quality public education. But some are more likely to thrive in a different environment. Maryland recognized that more than a decade ago by authorizing a charter school program, and now parents and students have access to a variety of different educational models — at least in counties that have embraced charters. The BOOST program is a modest extension of that idea that provides limited state support for parents who believe their students will do best in a non-public school. Of secondary importance, the program helps ensure the viability of private schools that might otherwise have a hard time surviving. BOOST scholarships may only be used at schools that charge no more in tuition than the average state per pupil support for students in public school, so it's not going to the Gilmans of the world. About 130,000 students in Maryland go to private schools, compared to about 900,000 in public school, and that number has been in decline in recent years. An influx of private school students into the public system would further stress Maryland's education funding resources.

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That said, we understand the criticism from many education advocates that a program like this is the beginning of a diversion of resources from public schools to private ones, a concern that's heightened by President-elect Donald Trump's desire to enact a $20 billion national voucher program. For that reason, we're not ready to endorse Governor Hogan's plan to double state support for the program over the next three years. We simply don't know enough yet about whether this program is working optimally to help those students who need it most, and there are far too many questions hanging over funding for public education.

The Maryland State Department of Education is only now finishing a report on the program's first year, so we don't yet have final statistics on the characteristics, economic and otherwise, of those who benefited. A letter to state leaders from the BOOST advisory board in October noted that 78 percent of eligible applicants had attended a non-public school in the previous year, though the board made choices in how the awards were administered that provided balance in the total amount of money going to those students and to those who had previously attended public school. Among Catholic schools, about 21 percent of the scholarships went to students who weren't enrolled in the system previously. The letter from the board points out a number of other issues with the program that need to be addressed in terms of who gets priority for awards, the assessments BOOST participating schools need to administer and the timing of the program in relation to the application cycle for private schools.

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Though the board didn't offer an opinion on the matter, that last consideration speaks to the need for BOOST to be codified in legislation rather than funded on a year-to-year basis in the budget bill. Too many parents didn't know about it in time for it to factor into their decisions on whether to apply to a non-public school for this year.

But the question of whether the allocation for the program should be increased needs to wait. Maryland is expected to face significant budget problems in the next fiscal year, and lawmakers need to ensure that public K-12 schools are protected from cuts, first and foremost. Moreover, the state is in the midst of re-evaluating its education funding policies, an exercise that could well result in recommendations that come with a hefty price tag. We need to make sure the state is living up to its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate free education before we talk about increasing funds for private schools.

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