On education issue, a split on party lines

November 04, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

Glenelg High School teacher James P. Mundy would rather not spend class time coordinating fund-raising efforts, but he says it's necessary if his school is to have enough computers to teach students technological skills for the future.

That's just one reason the Democratic state Senate candidate says funneling taxpayers' money to private schools through tax credits or other schemes is "irresponsible" and a "knee-jerk reaction" to the public schools' problems.

"To take away money from public schools to subsidize private schools -- to teach the best and forget the rest -- is not only ethically, but fiscally, irresponsible," said Mr. Mundy, a former Howard teachers union president.

His opponent in the District 14 race to represent Ellicott City and western Howard, incumbent Republican Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, says his challenger's position on school privatization ventures "flies in the face of what's going on around the country."

"Educational reform is needed in Maryland," said Mr. McCabe. "We can't foreclose different options."

In all three state Senate races in Howard County this year, the candidates' positions on private alternatives to public education are divided along party lines.

The Democrats -- Mr. Mundy, Del. Virginia M. Thomas and Edward J. Kasemeyer -- say diverting money from public to private education ventures would be negligent because many school systems, including Howard's, are struggling with crowded classrooms and a lack of resources.

The Republicans -- Mr. McCabe, Del. Martin G. Madden and David P. Maier -- say that government-supported privatization programs could improve education and that they merit consideration.

Those alternatives include providing students with vouchers thelp pay private tuition, contracting with private companies to run public schools, allowing parents to form their own schools and hiring private tutoring firms at public expense.

Proponents say such programs would help the public system by applying pressure to raise standards.

The head of the Republican ticket, gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, has proposed offering taxpayer-funded vouchers worth $2,000 to help defray private school tuition and to encourage parents unhappy with the public schools to set up their own private schools.

LTC In 1993, the General Assembly killed a similar proposal by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. State teachers unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union lined up against it.

Not surprisingly, the 3,000-member Howard County Education Association has endorsed the pro-public school views of the county's Democratic Senate candidates.

"It's absolutely wrong to take taxpayer dollars and give it to private schools at the expense of public education," said the association's president, James R. Swab.

"It's incredible to me that any politician . . . from Howard County would advocate the use of vouchers and privatization at a time when we don't have enough money for textbooks or materials of instruction and our class sizes are growing."

Moreover, the Howard Democratic Senate candidates say, a broad voucher program would help wealthier families and leave poorer and middle-class children behind.

"It begins to set up a real class distinction," said Mr. Kasemeyer, the District 12 Democratic candidate. "We would have a more elite class. It defeats the whole basis for public education. It would tend to ruin the public school system."

His Republican opponent in District 12, Mr. Maier, says a voucher program could pressure public school systems to improve their performance.

He is critical of public education, saying more emphasis should be placed on fundamentals and less on what he calls "social engineering" programs such as sex education and self-esteem lessons.

"By the time children get out in the world, if they don't have a solid academic base, all the self-esteem training won't do any good," said Mr. Maier, whose three school-age children are taught at home.

Mr. Madden, the Republican candidate in District 13, said he would support the voucher concept only as a "last resort option for schools that consistently fail our children."

"My primary aim is to help every child have an opportunity for a quality education. To achieve that goal, I don't think we should rule out any remedy."

Ms. Thomas, Mr. Madden's Democratic opponent in District 13 in southeastern Howard, questions how a voucher program would be financed without harming public education.

"We're struggling now to get the money for problems in our school system that have to be corrected," she said. "I'm amused. [Republicans] say cut the budget, then they come up with an entirely new program."

Mr. Madden contends that additional revenue might not be needed for a tax-credit program that would dispense $2,000 worth of tax credits for each student because per-student costs in the public schools far exceed that amount.

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