State funds for private schools OK'd

Senate approves $6 million for buying books

Glendening proposal

Baltimore legislators fought program during long debate

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

The Maryland Senate approved spending state money to help pay for textbooks at private and parochial schools, voting 27-19 yesterday for the $6 million in funding proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

The subsidy, which faces a tough test in the House, sparked an impassioned and prolonged debate as the Senate gave preliminary approval to a $19.5 billion state budget for next year.

Several Baltimore area legislators led the charge against sending money to nonpublic schools, arguing that doing so would erode Maryland's constitutionally required commitment to public schools.

"One thing that makes this nation stand out, that is uniquely American, is our public school system," said Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Senate majority leader. "This is a jab. It's a set-up punch" for destroying public schools, he said, demonstrating his point by shadowboxing.

Supporters of the proposal argued that the state gives money to private colleges and, with a burgeoning treasury, can afford to help nonpublic school students without undermining public education. One city senator said his constituents should have an option besides Baltimore schools, where students "continually fail."

"What do you say to that parent in a housing project? Wait until we turn the system around? Wait another five or 10 years?" said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, like Blount, a Baltimore Democrat. "They may be poor, but they're not stupid."

The $6 million amounts to an average of about $45 for each of the 134,000 nonpublic school students in Maryland, a minuscule fraction of the overall budget.

The Senate cut roughly $114 million from Glendening's $19.6 billion proposal, nibbling around the edges to meet the General Assembly's self-imposed spending limit. The House budget committee is making its decisions this week, and the two chambers will have to resolve any differences on the state budget before the legislative session ends April 10.

Parochial school advocates had lobbied for textbook funding for several years before Glendening sought the program this year.

Supporters of the textbook funding argued that the Assembly could limit subsidies to wealthy students by directing the money to schools with lower tuitions. They argued that poor and middle-class families who are struggling to send their children to private schools ought to get some help from the state.

"There are 130,000 students who will benefit from a little bit of money," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat. "I think they deserve some consideration."

Opponents said private schools don't need the money nearly as much as public schools do.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, read aloud from a letter written by a 9-year-old boy from Pinewood Elementary School in Timonium.

"You should give the public schools the $6 million and give the private and religious schools negative $10,000 dollars," Hollinger read. "Giving that money to those private and religious schools is like giving money to people who already have so much they don't know what to do with it."

In addition to the funds for nonpublic schools, the Senate left many of Glendening's other spending proposals intact. They include:

$320 million for public school construction and new buildings on college and university campuses, with $300 million more to come in the proposed capital budget.

$1.4 billion in transportation spending, including $100 million for an extension of the Washington Metro's Blue Line north of the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County.

$35 million for a state-supported pay raise for public school teachers.

$2 million toward Baltimore County's plan to redevelop the waterfront district in Essex-Middle River.

The Senate approved holding back $5 million of $21 million slated for renewing Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater until developers and preservationists agree on how to minimize demolition of historic buildings in the West Side redevelopment.

The Weinberg Foundation has threatened to pull out of the $350 million redevelopment planned for the west side if that provision isn't removed or softened.

Also, the Senate did not include $1 million in research money for gun safety technology that the governor had intended for Beretta U.S.A., a gun manufacturer in Prince George's County. Senators cut that money after concluding Beretta was not interested in conducting such research.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

Senate meets. 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

House of Delegates meets. 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate Finance Committee hears SB 615, to make June 19 -- "Juneteenth" -- a state holiday commemorating the end of slavery, 1 p.m., Senate office building, presidential wing.

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