Catholic group starts Md. drive to help schools New federation tries for more tax money in nationwide effort

Harford Co. is first target

Opponents say aid would undermine public education

October 31, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Roman Catholic Church leaders are launching a drive today to get more tax money for the state's parochial schools. The newly formed Maryland Federation of Catholic School Parents, part of a nationwide effort by Catholic school advocates say the money wouldn't cross the line between church and state because these services do not advance religion, and go directly to students, not to schools.

However, opponents immediately said the aid would undermine public schools.

Private schools receive federal money for low-income families, such as free and reduced-price lunches and materials and aides through Chapter 1, a program for educationally disadvantaged children. Private school children also may receive special education services from public schools.

The advocates say other states, such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, provide services including computers, and even train teachers how to use them. And they point to some Maryland counties, such as Howard and Carroll, that allow Catholic school students to ride public buses. No other counties in the metropolitan area, or Baltimore City, provide buses or other services to Catholic schools.

The group plans to lobby the General Assembly to pass laws allowing each county to provide the services, but it has to start by getting local officials to endorse it.

Cardinal William H. Keeler formally will introduce the federation today at the Baltimore Convention Center, during the annual Catholic school conference for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The Maryland bishops decided to form the federation, in response to a nationwide effort by Catholic school parents, said Mary Ellen Russell, who was hired in June to coordinate the parent group. Schools in the archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington and the diocese of Wilmington have been asked to appoint a parent and faculty member to the federation.

"The main reason is simply to enable Catholic-school parents to have a voice in the legislative process," Ms. Russell said.

The federation will argue that the state has a responsibility to provide services for children, as long as they are not religious and comparable to what public school provides, she said. "I'm sure down the road [the parents will lobby for] something like tax credits or vouchers," Ms. Russell said.

The parents are linking up through the Internet and distributing names and addresses of legislators, setting up a communications network ready to fire off letters and calls.

Harford County is the first target, because it has a local group. Several parents organized two years ago to urge the County Council to provide public school buses for children who attend private schools. The federation will bolster those efforts.

"They're not going to get anywhere," said Jean Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association. "There simply is no money. Their timing could not be worse."

Over the past five years, the state has been cutting its share of money for pupil transportation, forcing the counties to pick up the difference.

Howard County asked the General Assembly to enact a law to transport parochial students in 1943 during World War II, mainly to conserve gasoline. Eleven other Maryland counties have similar laws permitting them to transport parochial students, although not all do.

Carroll County doesn't have such a law, but its schools spend about $37,000 a year to let students on an existing route ride a bus to a public school across the street from the county's only Catholic school.

In Howard, even the $200,000 it budgets isn't enough to cover all Catholic-school students. Schools determine which of their families need the transportation the most, said Glenn Johnson, director of transportation. The Howard system set a geographic "district" for each Catholic school, transporting students only within that district.

Two main arguments flank the issue of public tax money for private schools: the concern that it will hurt public education and the principle of public money aiding a religious cause.

"It's taxpayer support of religious education, making it more likely people will choose religious education," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State of Washington.

In Lemon vs. Kurtzman in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that laws providing aid to private schools had to stand up to a three-part test. Often referred to as "the Lemon test," it says any law benefiting parochial schools must have a secular purpose; must not primarily advance or retard religion; and must not foster the "excessive entanglement" of government in religious affairs.

A New York state program aiding certain private schools failed the second part of the test in 1973 because parochial schools were its chief beneficiary. However, a 1983 Minnesota law allowing a tax deduction for school expenses passed because it gave public school parents the deduction.

Even the Lemon test goes too far for Mr. Lynn and his organization, which disapproves of any aid to religious schools. He distrusts the Catholic-parent organizations springing up nationwide.

"This is about a widespread transfer of funds for public schools to what is, for the most part, Catholic schools," Mr. Lynn said.

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