With Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed reductions to Maryland's K-12 public schools largely reversed by the General Assembly, it's appropriate for lawmakers to boost opportunities for low-income students in private schools as well. Providing students real choice, whether through public magnet schools, charter schools or parochial and other forms of private schools is a proven method for improving educational outcomes.
In higher education, the state has recognized the importance of such broad support and over the years has spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on private undergraduate colleges and universities on a per-student basis under a funding formula known as the Joseph A. Sellinger State Aid Program. It's been a wise investment. These 17 educational institutions, from Johns Hopkins University to Washington College, provide important opportunities for young people and strengthen our state's economy and the communities in which they are located.
Now lawmakers have a chance to create even more carefully targeted help to students for whom a private primary or secondary school might be the best choice. Under legislation submitted by Mr. Hogan, the state would provide an income tax credit to companies that donate money to qualified student financial assistance programs. The total amount that could be deducted under the proposed Maryland Education Credit would be limited to $5 million next year, $10 million the following year and then $15 million after that.
The beauty of the proposal is that the money wouldn't go directly to private schools, some of which have hefty endowments and hardly need a tax credit to attract wealthy donors anxious to finance yet another edifice in their names. Rather, the money can be used only for so-called Student Assistance Organizations that provide tuition support for needy students who have applied to a private or parochial school. Businesses are limited to a credit not exceeding 60 percent of a donation, and no single business could receive more than $200,000 in tax credits.
Better yet, this is a benefit that extends to public schools as well. Under the legislation, 40 percent of the tax credit is intended to aid students in eligible public schools. That means these tax-deductible private donations could be used for after-school tutors or similar programs not normally financed by cash-strapped public schools.
Such restrictions would seem to overcome the usual objections to tax credits for private schools — that they'll just help the affluent or that they'll hurt the public school system by draining away the most motivated students. At least 14 other states provide similar tax credits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including Pennsylvania and Virginia where the programs are more generous than the one Mr. Hogan has proposed.
We are staunch defenders of Maryland's public schools, and we applaud lawmakers for finding extra dollars in this year's budget plan not only to operate schools and keep class sizes from rising but to renovate and build them as well. But we also recognize there are instances when children can succeed better in a private school than they might in an under-performing public school that serves their neighborhood. Unfortunately, families can't make that choice if they don't have the money to pay tuition. Even relatively prosperous private schools have limits on how much financial aid they can offer poor or working class families.
Many legislators agree. The Senate has approved similar legislation several times in the past on a bipartisan basis and is likely to do so again. The obstacle has traditionally been the House of Delegates where Mr. Hogan's proposal currently resides like an abandoned child twiddling its thumbs the Ways and Means Committee. That Maryland's teacher unions are strongly against the measure might have something to do with that. Surely there is room for a political compromise that protects public schools but gives students real choice.
After all, if Maryland is going to take pride in the excellence of its schools, it ought to demonstrate support for all its schools, not just the government-run variety that employ unionized labor. Done correctly, this isn't a handout to the rich but a worthwhile way to use tax credits to help low-income students in a manner that benefits private schools and public schools, not to mention taxpayers spared the cost of educating those youngsters. That's a win-win situation, and the fact that the measure's sponsors have included prominent Baltimore City African-American leaders like former Del. Keiffer Mitchell (who now works for Mr. Hogan) and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden demonstrates its importance as a means to improve educational opportunities for some of society's most vulnerable children.