Aid to private schools passes on close vote

Delegates approve $6 million in public money for textbooks

March 24, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,Sun Staff

The House of Delegates voted yesterday to spend state money to buy textbooks at private and parochial schools, all but assuring passage of the landmark measure before the General Assembly adjourns next month.

The 72-68 vote came after a lengthy debate that reflected a deep division over the relative needs of public and private schools and, to a lesser degree, over the question of separating church and state.

The Senate approved the $6 million textbook subsidy, a budget proposal by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, on a 27-19 vote last week. The two houses are expected to work out differences over how to distribute the money, including whether to exclude private schools with relatively high tuition rates.

Several House leaders worked vigorously to pass the funding proposal, which is opposed by public school teachers, PTAs and many rank-and-file Democrats, who argue that the subsidy would undermine support for public schools.

"Until we can say that we fully fund public education, I can't support diverting a dollar to private education," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat. "I can't support sending $6 million to private schools as long as there are kids in public schools who don't have textbooks."

Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard County Democrat, held up several old textbooks from an Annapolis public school and said, "This book was published in 1976, and the information in it is outdated. Before we provide any money for nonpublic schools, the first thing we ought to do is take care of our own house and make sure our own students don't have this kind of material in our schools."

Supporters said private and parochial schools deserve at least token support from the state because they have 134,000 students who are as much Maryland's children as public school students are.

"It is saying thank you for helping educate our children," said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat. "They are putting out good citizens for us, the citizens that are not going to be in jail, that are not going to give us trouble, that are going to do the right thing."

Support for public schools

Some of the bill's advocates found themselves defending their records on public education, urging delegates not to view a vote for the subsidy as a vote against public schools.

"I've gotten national awards for my work in public education," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. "I also care about children no matter where they are. I care about education, period."

More than 30 states provide direct or indirect aid to private education. Some rural counties in Maryland offer bus transportation under laws that have been on the books for decades.

Pennsylvania model

Supporters envision Maryland's textbook subsidy working something like Pennsylvania's, which has been in place since the 1970s. Private schools order nonsectarian books from a state-approved list, and the state buys the books and has them shipped to the schools.

About 90 percent of Pennsylvania's 330,000 nonpublic school students receive textbooks and instructional materials from the state. Pennsylvania also provides private schools with remedial teaching and counseling, technology support and free bus transportation for students living within 10 miles of their school.

That's about $440 in state money for each student in private or parochial school, or about 10 times the per-student textbook subsidy that is close to approval in Maryland.

The House proposal includes a couple of provisions not in the Pennsylvania model.

A higher subsidy, $90 per student, would go to schools where at least 20 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. Other schools would receive up to $60 per student.

Tuition limit

The House plan also calls for the state to set a tuition limit, possibly excluding high-priced schools such as the Gilman School in Baltimore, which charges about $13,000 a year in tuition. The Senate, like Pennsylvania, chose not to set tuition or income limits.

Opponents of the subsidy worry that Maryland might move in Pennsylvania's direction in other ways, from spending $6 million on textbooks one year to tens of millions for various needs in future years.

"It starts off small, but will it really remain small?" asked Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.

Some supporters argued that the textbook funding is not a major step because Maryland has on occasion given money to parochial schools for construction projects.

"We hear that it's a fight of conscience. But we've spent money for private schools before," Rawlings said. He said some opponents "tremble in fear of" the public education lobby. His comments angered some legislators, who said he was questioning the reasons for their votes against the proposal.

"It has to do with standing up for principle," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard Democrat.

The House's action yesterday came as it approved its version of the $19.5 billion state budget for next year. House and Senate negotiators must work out their differences on the budget, including how to distribute the textbook money, before the legislature adjourns April 10.

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