Book aid for schools challenged

Grasmick opposes plan for $8 million for private education

Lawmaker support eroding

Glendening program draws on Md.'s share of tobacco money

January 26, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Noting the "unmet needs" of Maryland's public school students, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick asked lawmakers yesterday to reject the governor's plan to spend $8 million next year for textbooks at private and religious schools.

Coincidentally, that sum is exactly what the State Board of Education would like to spend to improve public school libraries, some of which have been closed for up to three years for lack of funds, Grasmick pointed out.

She waited more than three hours in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing to deliver that message, supported unanimously by the Board of Education - a body appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"The state board is concerned," Grasmick said when asked why she had decided to appear in person. Using the $8 million for libraries, she said, would "benefit all schools in the state of Maryland."

Her testimony foreshadowed what is likely to be a tough struggle for the governor's textbook proposal. The legislature agreed last year to send $6 million to private schools to help pay for textbooks this year, but the measure passed the House of Delegates by only two votes.

Many lawmakers and lobbyists for teacher organizations spoke yesterday of eroding support for the proposal this year and predicted it would be defeated.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who backed the textbook bill last year, said he doubts it will emerge this time from the Appropriations Committee, which he chairs. "I can count the votes," Rawlings said. "I'm not willing to send out a budget issue that's going to get killed on the floor of the House."

The subsidy is funded by the state's portion of the national tobacco settlement and is offered to schools charging tuition of less than $7,133.

Such schools applied for about $5 million of the $6 million that was available this year.

Glendening included the $8 million textbook allocation as part of his $21 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Last year, the General Assembly wrestled through a tense debate before approving the spending, the first time the state had given public money to nonpublic schools.

Many lawmakers thought the first time would also be the last, because of language in the budget bill and testimony from proponents. Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who represents one of the poorest districts in the state, said although he was reluctant last year, he could justify giving a one-time boost to struggling parochial schools, especially because the money was coming from the tobacco settlement.

This year, he said, "I just can't, in good faith, do that."

Baltimore County Republican Donald E. Murphy, who also supported the bill last year, said the small church school his children attend could have applied for the money, but didn't. "I don't think it's necessary," he said. "I'm annoyed that it's back. I was told that it was a one-year thing."

In hopes of creating a long-term solution to the financial problems of nonpublic schools, Murphy is one of many sponsors of a bill that would create a voluntary consortium of public and private schools to buy textbooks and other supplies.

Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat and the bill's principal sponsor, estimates that participating schools could save at least $25 million a year if they pooled their money.

Grasmick has repeatedly clashed with Glendening on school reform issues; her role as a member of his administration puts her in the position of criticizing a textbook subsidy program she would have to run.

Grasmick's comments were taken up enthusiastically by some committee members, who noted the deplorable conditions of some public-school libraries. Del. Verna Jones, a Baltimore Democrat, said she had visited schools "where they're still talking about Jimmy Carter as president."

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

11 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

11 a.m. House of Delegates meets, House chamber.

Noon. Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, hearing on aid to University of Maryland Medical System and state health department. Room 3 West, Miller Senate Office Building.

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