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The promise and potential for school vouchers in Baltimore

As we mark the first anniversary of last year's civil unrest in Baltimore, there are many positive signs that the anger and frustration that fueled that unrest have been heard. Residents of this city have mobilized for positive change, and our state legislature responded by approving a $200 million-plus package to spark education, innovation and revitalization.

As a long-time principal of Catholic schools serving inner-city students, including many from low-income families living in the neighborhoods of west Baltimore where Freddie Gray lived, I was especially pleased to see the enactment of the BOOST Program in the state budget. The inclusion of this program, 10 years in the making, is a significant victory for all those who recognize that investing in expanded educational opportunities for every student in Baltimore is a critical component to achieving genuine and long-standing change in our city.

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Despite all of this positive change, I was disappointed to read J.D. Merrill's op-ed, which includes certain presumptions and "suspicions" that should be addressed lest the general public be misinformed ("Private school vouchers are bad public policy in Md.," April 20).

First, the legislative champions who created this new program are committed to its continuation because they care about the future of our children. They are not about to open this new path of hope for families in our city only to snatch it away a year from now, despite the efforts of opponents who for years have stood in the way of this new expansion of educational choices for low-income families.

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The new BOOST scholarship program will potentially assist more than 1,000 low-income students to attend the school of their choice in the coming school year, and it stands to help tens of thousands of kids over time. While details are still forthcoming, this scholarship program may very well cover full tuition for students who need it. That'll be up to an advisory board appointed by legislature. We trust that they will make the informed decisions about how to best utilize the scholarship funding and ensure that the families most in need receive them.

I know firsthand that there were thousands of public school kids who wanted to attend a Catholic school last year, only to find that there wasn't enough funding to go around. In all there were over $85 million in diocesan assistance requests statewide just last year, which clearly indicates the enormous demand for this new program. It also clearly indicates that parents want options for their children.

Contrary to Mr. Merrill's assertion, students will have a sizable "universe" of schools from which to choose, despite the requirement that eligible schools not charge more in annual tuition than the $14,000 it costs taxpayers to educate each public school child. This is because the vast majority of Maryland's private schools charge very modest tuitions. Schools eligible to accept scholarship recipients under this program by virtue of their lower tuitions actually educate more than 80 percent of the current private school students in Maryland. Many are charging closer to $5,000. And they're doing a lot with that to consistently help students achieve, graduate and go on to college.

Opponents are right about at least one thing: Maryland has great public schools, and that's something in which we should take pride. It doesn't mean however, that every public school is world-class or that it's the right environment for every student. It's important to recognize that no two children are alike, but all are equally important.

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The people of Baltimore asked for change and lawmakers responded. I, like many, am excited about the potential this program has to give young people a reason to believe their future is full of promise.

Kathleen Filippelli, Baltimore

The writer is the principal of Holy Angels Catholic School.

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