Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has said he wants to increase the state-funded private school scholarship — or voucher — program known as BOOST from $5 million per year to $10 million over the next three years. Yet data show that the program, which was billed as a way to broaden education options for low-income children, is little more than a subsidy for private schools. Roughly 78 percent of the students who benefited from it last fall — more than 1,900 kids — were already attending private schools when they received the taxpayer funding.
This raises serious questions:
Is Mr. Hogan not aware that Maryland voters twice, in 1972 and 1974, defeated such proposals in referendum elections? Both times voters collected more than enough signatures on petitions to force referendums on legislation that the General Assembly had passed to divert public funds to private schools.
Is Mr. Hogan not aware that tens of millions of voters from Massachusetts to California and from Florida to Alaska and Hawaii between 1966 and 2014 rejected vouchers, tax credits and similar devices by an average margin of two to one? Or that in 2015 the respected Gallup education poll registered opposition at 57 percent to 31 percent?
Is Mr. Hogan not aware that the overwhelming majority of private schools are essentially religious institutions — Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Muslim, etc. — and that their enrollments tend to reflect their sectarian orientation? That diverting public funds to private schools tends to divide the student population along religious, ideological, ethnic, socioeconomic and other lines?
Is Mr. Hogan not familiar with our constitutional heritage, going back to Jefferson and Madison, of not using public funds to aid religious institutions? Or James Madison's famous 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments spelling out why government should not divert public funds to religious institutions? Or Benjamin Franklin's statement: "When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its adherents are obliged to call for help of the government, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one"?
If Maryland legislative leaders recommend that Mr. Hogan cut the budget by $189 million, how can he propose to increase tax aid to private schools?
Maryland's public schools rank among the best in the country, but they could use additional funding. And President-elect Donald Trump has indicated that he wants the federal government to spend $20 billion into expanding tax support for private and charter schools, and has named for secretary of education billionaire Betsy DeVos, who never attended public schools or sent her own kids to them but who has poured millions of dollars into efforts to divert public funds to private schools. In 2000, voters in her own state of Michigan defeated such a voucher plan by 69 percent to 31 percent, just as they did in 1978 by 74 percent to 26 percent.
Is Mr. Hogan not aware of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study of school voucher programs, released on Sept. 12? GAO researchers examined voucher and tax credit programs nationwide but concentrated on the major ones in Arizona, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin. They found serious flaws in these programs. As Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat, noted in The Huffington Post, the GAO found that such programs "have weaker standards for teacher preparedness than public schools"; "cherry-pick student applicants ... often discriminating against some students based on their religion or disability-related behaviors" and "fail to serve students when deficiencies in taxpayer-subsidized private schools lead to students with disabilities departing the school because they required more services than the schools could provide."
For 40 years, about 70 percent of the respondents in the annual Gallup education polls have given an A or B grade to the public school attended by their oldest child. With more adequate and more equitably distributed funding and other internal reforms, all of the public schools serving 90 percent of America's children could get an A or B grade. Governor Hogan and the Maryland legislature should think long and hard about the drive to divert public funds to private schools.
Edd Doer (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former public school teacher, is president of Americans for Religious Liberty; he was a leader in the 1970s referendum campaigns to block tax aid to private schools.