And his school vouchers also run into opposition

January 16, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's groundbreaking proposal to give 200 low-income students money to attend private schools faces stiff opposition from the state's public education establishment.

The $600,000 school "choice" program recommended by the governor this week would drain the public schools of both money and talented students, opponents say.

But supporters, including Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, say the pilot would give parents more control over their children's educational futures.

The plan would offer vouchers of roughly $2,900 -- about half the average per-pupil cost in public schools statewide -- to low-income students from around the state.

Families could use the vouchers for tuition at private or parochial schools. In some cases, the $2,900 would be enough to pay the entire tuition, said Page Boinest, the governor's press secretary. In other cases, low-income students might be able to make up the difference through scholarships, she said.

Parents also could use the vouchers to cover fees that might be charged by a school district to enroll a student from another jurisdiction -- a Baltimore City student attending school in Baltimore County, for example.

The criteria for picking the 200 participating students have yet to be worked out.

The proposal is designed to test whether private or parochial schools offer a better education than public schools, Ms. Boinest said.

She stressed that the governor still plans to "fully fund" state aid for public schools.

But some lawmakers and public school advocates oppose the (( choice plan.

"I think we have to improve our public schools before we can provide choice in terms of public or private schools," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat.

Others were more blunt.

"I think the governor has gone off the deep end on this issue," said Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

A $2,900 voucher is not large enough to pay the full tuition at many private schools, she warned, making it meaningless for poorer families.

"What we will have left in the public schools are the slower kids and the poorer kids, and everybody else will be taking the voucher and putting their kids in the private schools," Ms. Dandridge said.

Baltimore Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said a voucher program could "further alienate or polarize our perceptions of some schools being better than others, some school systems being better than others."

And Jane Stern, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said her group would fight the plan, in court or through referendum if necessary.

The debate could be fierce, predicted James McPartland, co-director of a public school research center at Johns Hopkins University.

Though he favors letting parents choose between public schools -- an idea also backed by President-elect Bill Clinton -- "the risks of extending it to the private market seems to be very high," said Mr. McPartland.

"If the government is going to be spending money on the education of poor students, they should be putting it in the schools they already attend," he said.

But Delegate Rawlings, who authored a similar plan last session and helped convince the governor to propose this one, said it would aid low-income and working-class parents.

Choice programs "allow people to make decisions about their life, and to allow them to improve their circumstances," he said.

No other state in the country has experimented with such vouchers for private and parochial school tuition, said Michael Kirst, an expert on state school reform at Stanford University.

The Maryland plan "would be precedent-setting," said Professor Kirst.

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