Catholic families rally for private-school aid

Legislators promise to consider change

January 07, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of Catholic-school families held rallies across Maryland last night as their effort to secure state aid for private schools picks up momentum.

With Gov. Parris N. Glendening seriously considering as much as $7 million for private schools to buy textbooks, parents and students gathered at 25 Catholic schools to show their strength statewide, inviting members of the General Assembly to attend the local rallies and learn more about their campaign for state aid.

"We have been hopeful for some time, and we think that this will be the year," said Mary Ellen Russell, coordinator of the Maryland Federation of Catholic-School Families and associate director for education at the Maryland Catholic Conference.

During the rally at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Southwest Baltimore, legislators pledged to keep an open mind about supporting state aid for non-public schools but said they were hesitant to support the idea unless they are convinced it would not cut into funding for public schools.

"I cannot support anything that would take away from one student to give to another," said Del. Lisa A. Gladden, a Democrat who represents Baltimore's 41st District. "But I promise to consider it."

Civil liberties advocates, teachers unions and public school supporters have said they will fight any proposal to give aid to Maryland's private and religious schools, but opposition has diminished recently among legislators and some groups.

The Baltimore Jewish Council has relaxed its opposition. It had vehemently fought against support for private schools even as many Jewish day schools joined the Catholic schools' campaign.

"We are no longer opposed to state funding for transportation or textbooks, and the decision to take no position is a change for us," said Arthur Abramson, the group's executive director. "We remain opposed to [state funding for] technology and computers."

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the budget and taxation committee, has indicated she would support state money for textbooks and transportation.

The increased support for state aid has come as the loose coalition of private and parochial schools has scaled back its request. When it began its campaign for state aid in 1996 -- flooding the governor's office with thousands of letters and holding its first of what became annual rallies in Annapolis -- it sought tens of millions of dollars for transportation, textbooks, technology and school nurses.

By last year, its requests had decreased to $14 million for books, computers and Internet access.

This year, the group is asking the governor for $7 million for textbooks -- about $50 for each of the 134,000 students attending Maryland non-public schools.

"We're asking for students in non-public schools to not be treated as second-class citizens," said Ronald J. Valenti, the Archdiocese of Baltimore's superintendent of schools. "Our schools have the same needs as all educational institutions."

While the governor has rejected giving such aid because of the huge needs of public schools, he has reconsidered his position this year because of the state's $1 billion budget surplus and its estimated $4.7 billion share of the national tobacco industry settlement.

"The governor is still considering including money for textbooks in his budget," said Michael Morrill, a spokesman for the governor.

If the governor were to include the funding in his budget plan, the money likely would not go directly to the schools, but instead to a clearinghouse that would buy textbooks on behalf of the schools -- similar to a Pennsylvania program.

The proposal still would face a legislative battle. For example, some legislators have indicated they would be reluctant to support a program that provided equal levels of aid to inner-city Catholic schools and North Baltimore's wealthy, elite private schools.

Opponents also say that such aid would violate the separation of church and state and argue that public money should go to the continuing needs of public schools, particularly in poor jurisdictions.

Advocates say the Supreme Court has permitted secular services in religious schools, and they deny they want to take money from public schools.

"This will allow the schools to provide quality textbooks on a regular basis," said Larry Cohen, co-chairman of the Advocates for Leadership in Educational Funding, a coalition of Jewish private schools.

The coalition of Jewish schools is planning a rally at 8: 30 p.m. Sunday at Beth Tfiloh Dahan High School in Pikesville, inviting state legislators to see the community support for funding.

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