Emotional debate likely on private school subsidy

Governor proposing $6 million in state aid to help buy textbooks

February 16, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Cheryl Ross sends her son Erick to St. Frances Academy on a secretary's salary, hoping to deliver him from a poor East Baltimore neighborhood.

Most of the students at the inner-city Roman Catholic high school go on to college, so Ross says it's worth the couple of thousand dollars a year for tuition and books. But even though she works overtime, she has yet to pay off this year's $233 book bill.

Now Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to help buy those books.

Glendening has proposed spending $6 million to subsidize textbooks for Maryland's 134,000 nonpublic school students, responding to several years of intense lobbying from Catholic and Jewish schools.

The proposal is a minuscule piece of the state's $19 billion operating budget, less than one-thirtieth of a penny for every dollar. But it is expected to spark one of the most emotional debates in the General Assembly this year.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is promoting a letter-writing campaign against what it sees as a subsidy for religious instruction. But the debate in the State House is focused less on the question of separating church and state than on the relative needs of nonpublic and public schools.

"People sacrifice a lot of money to pay for tuition and pay for books," said Rabbi Herman Neuberger, president of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. "Any help to relieve the parents is certainly essential. In all fairness, the government should grant it."

The idea is anathema to public education advocates, who argue that it's wrong to give money to schools that generally cater to the well-to-do when public schools have tremendous needs.

"You've got to look at this as not just a $6 million infusion of funds. You have to look at this as a sea change in philosophy," said Del. Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "Does funding private schools drive a further wedge between the haves and the have-nots?"

The have-nots are places such as Southern High School in Baltimore. Despite aggressive textbook purchases throughout the city schools in recent years, Southern High students study with old books in some classes and share books in others.

In drafting class, the students use 20-year-old mechanical drawing textbooks, some with pages torn out. Teacher Bobby Keaton has to make up exercises to teach his seniors recent advances in architecture and engineering.

Principal Patricia Blansfield says she can't afford to buy textbooks and workbooks for her students in every subject.

"We have not yet been adequately funded, and yet now we're going to take more dollars from our kids," she said. "If we can't offer them the tools to train with, how can I send them out to compete against kids who've had the opportunities?"

To counter the notion that nonpublic schools are havens for the rich, Catholic activists point to schools such as St. Frances, across the Inner Harbor from Southern. The parochial high school's 281 uniformed students stand out in a neighborhood where many students drop out of public school.

Three-quarters of the children of St. Frances come from single-parent homes. Sixty percent eat free or reduced-price lunches. And about three-quarters of the student body is expected to graduate from college.

"We're in the business because we serve a need, and we're not in the business to make money," said Sister John Francis Schilling, the academy's principal. "Our clientele are people who we can't afford to out-price."

`Education is better for him'

Erick Ross, a 16-year-old sophomore who used to attend Southern High, plays on St. Frances' standout basketball team. His mother says the school is giving him a good shot at college.

"He studies more. He's more into learning now than in the public schools," she said. "And the education is better for him."

But with that opportunity comes a price, an annual tuition bill of $1,750 after a $2,000 scholarship. That eats up about a quarter of Cheryl Ross' monthly take-home pay as a secretary at a public elementary school.

On top of that, she has had to pay hundreds of dollars for books. "Basically, my income is low," she said. "I can always use help."

The state aid plan would provide a little. The proposed $6 million adds up to about $45 per nonpublic school student in Maryland.

Glendening offered the money in his budget after years of saying no, in part because the state has a record surplus of about $1 billion. He says every child in the state has the right to the best possible education, whether in public or nonpublic school.

Privately, Glendening aides have made it clear that the issue is not a priority for the governor, who has generally focused his attention on public schools.

Many legislators who support the proposal point out that for decades the state has given generously to some of Maryland's most privileged nonpublic schools, its private colleges. This year, Glendening has proposed spending $66 million on private colleges and universities, including $15 million for construction projects at the Johns Hopkins University.

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