If Ellen R. Sauerbrey has her way, Maryland parents will get a $2,000 tax credit or state-paid voucher good for tuition at any private school in the state.
It's the most radical of several voucher proposals in the nation -- and goes well beyond the one limited voucher plan actually in place in Milwaukee.
Mrs. Sauerbrey's proposal, part of a package of plans designed to give parents more "choice" in education, would almost certainly face a legal challenge from civil libertarians concerned that it presents church-state entanglement in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The candidate said that she is "leaning toward" a tax credit scheme. Parents would get a $2,000 credit for each child to pay private school tuition. Private schools would be prohibited from raising tuition to tap into the windfall. Parents too poor to benefit from the credit would get an outright grant.
The Republican candidate said her program would create an "educational marketplace because new schools would be created, and the public schools would improve themselves to meet the competition."
Mrs. Sauerbrey claimed her proposal would not cost more money because public schools already spend more than $6,000 on each student. "After the $2,000 is taken away," she said, "most, but not all, of the remaining $4,000 stays with the public school system to be used for improvement."
Thus far, Mrs. Sauerbrey has discussed only credits for current public students choosing to switch to private schools.
"That's absurd," said her opponent, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening. "Do the mathematics. There are 113,000 students in private schools in Maryland. If we give each one $2,000, that comes to more than $200 million. Where is she going to get $200 million? It can only come from public education."
Mr. Glendening's 14-year-old son attends DeMatha High, a Catholic school near his home in Prince George's County. "I wouldn't think about asking taxpayers to subsidize his education at a church-related school," the candidate said.
Mrs. Sauerbrey said she used as her model the private Unseld School in West Baltimore, "where $2,600 a year buys an excellent education from caring teachers, many of whom would rather work in an atmosphere like that than earn more money in a public school."
She, and other proponents of vouchers and tax credits, maintain the schemes pass the constitutional test because the public subsidy goes to parents, not directly to schools. Additionally, Mrs. Sauerbrey's plan, which would be phased in over 12 years, would reduce the subsidy at sectarian schools by a percentage equal to the proportion of a student's school day spent in religious instruction.
Civil libertarians dismissed Mrs. Sauerbrey's scheme as unrealistic and unconstitutional. Officials at Americans United for Separation of Church and State said no voucher plan or tax credit that involves aid to sectarian schools has passed a First Amendment test. "No matter how Sauerbrey and the right wing fashion it," said Robert Boston of Americans United, "you're still funneling money to churches."
The only working voucher plan in the nation is in Milwaukee, where 950 students at 12 private schools are in the fourth year of a voucher experiment. The private schools receive $2,987 per student in lieu of tuition. That's the amount Milwaukee spends in local funds on each public student.
The Milwaukee plan has passed muster in Wisconsin's highest court, but eligible schools must be nonsectarian.