Private schools seek share of public funds Statewide effort aims for 'economic parity'

April 17, 1996|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

From Bel Air to Baltimore, bold signs are cropping up on church and school lawns, asserting that Catholic schools save Maryland taxpayers millions of dollars -- the first manifestation of a statewide campaign to obtain public money for private school students.

Spearheaded by the Maryland Catholic Conference and an affiliated parents group, the campaign aims to show that the state would spend millions more on education if nonpublic schools did not exist. And that the state would still be getting a bargain if it provided busing, books and other services to students in those schools.

"We're asking for economic parity," said Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Unveiling a sign at St. Pius X School on York Road in Rodgers Forge this week, he said the aid would not blur the separation of church and state.

But opponents of the support are concerned about that principle. They also fear for the budgets of Maryland's already-strapped public school systems.

With about a dozen signs up, and more ready to sprout, the grass-roots campaign is encouraging the state to provide comparable services, as long as they are not religious, to all youngsters. Based on the average public school per-pupil cost, the Catholic Conference estimates that it saves the state $1 million a day, said Mary Ellen Russell, who was hired last summer to organize the parents' group.

In return for such savings, the families of the 60,000 students in Catholic schools in Maryland are entitled to some state support, she said. One service is bus transportation, but the campaign has broader goals: textbook reimbursement, testing costs and health services.

Using taxpayer money for such services is not new, in Maryland or neighboring states.

Eleven Maryland counties have laws allowing them to transport parochial school students on public buses, but not all exercise that right. In the metro area, Howard and Carroll counties transport private school students on public buses. Carroll buses pick up only those who live on assigned routes.

Baltimore County, among others, provided nurses free to private and parochial schools for 30 years until 1992, when a budget crunch ended that relationship.

Pennsylvania and Delaware, meanwhile, are among at least two dozen states that spend taxpayers' dollars on services for students in nonpublic schools.

"Transportation is not education. This is a public service that the county has decided to give to its residents but it has decided not to give it equally," said Kathy Casey, who has two children at St. Margaret School in Bel Air.

"This is not a church-state issue. We are not asking for educational money, we are asking for transportation money."

But the issue is more complicated for others.

"It's not an easy issue to deal with, either legally or emotionally," said Christopher T. Cross, president of the Maryland State Board of Education. In his three-year tenure, the issue has never been discussed, formally or informally, by the board, he said, "But when and if it is, we would want to step back and look at it from a number of legal aspects."

Mrs. Casey, who has lived in several states that provide such services for parochial school students, is a member of Harford County Families for Educational Choice, which organized around this issue four years ago.

Now that group has joined the Federation of Catholic School Parents, which hopes to attract a parent and a faculty member from every Catholic school in the state. Through the Catholic Conference, the church's lobbying arm, the federation is likely to introduce state legislation seeking aid in 1997, Dr. Valenti said.

But opponents of the early efforts in Harford give a preview of what the statewide campaign is likely to face.

"We're fighting for every dollar we can for education. We're sympathetic [to families of parochial students], but it's their choice to do it," said Andre Fournier, president of the Harford County Council of PTAs, which opposes bus service for parochial students.

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann also opposes busing because of budget restrictions, a county spokesman said.

Even proponents acknowledge some reluctance within their ranks, especially among native Marylanders. "It's totally foreign to me to think that these [parochial school] children are not worthy of safe transportation," Mrs. Casey said. "But I find it hard to change that mind-set."

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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