Governor's voucher plan under fire

February 13, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's pioneering plan to give money to poor Baltimore families for private and parochial school tuition got a rocky reception at its first legislative outing yesterday.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee questioned how the pilot program would work and what it would prove, while witnesses said it would drain money -- up to $582,000 in one year -- and talented students from public education.

"Taking limited resources and directing them outside the system is not the way to improve public schools," said Elaine Franz, representing the Maryland Education Coalition, a group advocating statewide education reform.

Before the committee briefing in Annapolis got under way, a diverse collection of 25 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, teachers unions, public school administrators and religious organizations, held a news conference to attack the Schaefer plan as unwise and unconstitutional.

But the governor's initiative, which would give cash vouchers of $2,908 to 200 low-income city families, retains the strong support of committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore. He and Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, co-sponsored a similar legislative measure last year.

"We can't improve public education with our heads in the sand," said Mr. Rawlings, adding that a voucher system "empowers parents to make decisions about their children's education."

Also backing the proposal are many of the state's private schools, and the Maryland Catholic Conference, whose low-tuition, inner-city Catholic schools stand to benefit from it.

Mr. Schaefer unveiled his plan as a budget item in last month's State of the State address, and officials originally touted it as a statewide initiative. They now say the plan would be limited to Baltimore City elementary school students, drawn from schools that do poorly in the state's school performance testing program.

Details of how eligible schools and students would be picked have yet to be worked out by the state Department of Education. This much is clear, however: Eligible students could take a voucher to any participating private school, or use it to pay fees to enroll a child in another public school system.

In practice, the $2,908 would be less than enough to pay the full tuition at many private schools, or even the fees counties charge to enroll students from outside their districts, according to testimony yesterday. That leaves Catholic schools as the most attractive choice for many parents, and the governor's office estimates that all but one of 30 Catholic schools in the city have a tuition of $2,908 or less.

If approved by the legislature, the governor's plan would be the first school "choice" program in the nation to divert public money into parochial schools, Maryland officials say.

Though a number of states have experimented with some version of school choice, only Wisconsin allows vouchers for private schools, in a program limited to nonsectarian schools in Milwaukee.

In Baltimore this week, Council President Mary Pat Clarke endorsed a more limited choice option, a concept also backed by President Clinton. It would let parents enroll children in the public school of their choice anywhere in the city.

At yesterday's committee briefing, Paul Schurick, the governor's chief of staff, argued that the state's voucher program would be an important experiment.

He said it would offer poor children "the same opportunity that's currently available to more affluent families -- that is, to choose for themselves whatever school setting is most appropriate for their needs."

Some committee members appeared bothered. The idea of public funds going to parochial schools, the fact that counties could refuse to enroll city students, and the lack of details in the governor's plan.

Though Mr. Schurick said the state Education Department would administer the initiative, he acknowledged that state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has "some reservations about this program."

While Mr. Rawlings' support could win passage in the House, the plan's future is more uncertain in the Senate.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, repeated his opposition yesterday, saying he was reluctant to divert up to $582,000 to private schools when public schools need more funding.

Also opposed is Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee's education panel. "We're not putting enough money into the public schools anyway," the senator said. "To take that money out of the public schools bothers me."

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