Earmark tax dollars for public school needs

March 27, 2001|By Susan Reimer

THE MARYLAND General Assembly is poised to repeat its blunder of the last session and send at least $5 million to private and parochial schools to pay for textbooks.

Gov. Parris Glendening, with money from a $1 billion budget surplus spilling out of his pockets, made this gesture last year, and it was approved by the legislators after acrimonious debate.

Apparently nobody thought to ask if this was a one-time deal. As it turns out, it was not. Glendening actually proposed to increase the book money this time around, but the legislators cut it back.

Tobacco money is given as the reason for this year's generosity. But I suspect it is more likely the case that Baltimore's William Cardinal Keeler strolled into the governor's office for a little chat and shut the door behind him.

The lesson here is one that small children teach us: Do something once, and you will have to do it again and again. We are going to be stuck with this book deal if we don't watch out, and next thing we know, the private schools will want buses and money for new gymnasiums.

Private and parochial school parents who support this - and their legislative puppets - infuriate me.

Certainly there are poor, African-American and Hispanic families who struggle to keep their children in crumbling inner-city parochial schools because of the deadly chaos of city public schools.

But let's not kid ourselves. They aren't the ones hiring lobbyists and arranging demonstrations outside the State House.

A great many parents put their children in private schools to keep them away from the poor, the African-American and the Hispanic kids, and the chaos they believe those kids bring to public schools.

To endorse that decision with one thin dime of public money is an abomination, no matter how full to overflowing the community chest is at the moment.

And that's the crux of the nondenominational argument for book money for private schools: There's plenty to go around right now. Let's be generous. Let all the children benefit.

And while Maryland's counties are getting much of what they ask for from the General Assembly for schools right now, and a dent has been made in the enormous backlog of repairs, schools are still scrambling for money.

That's because school districts, so used to lean times, don't pay for much of anything after the ribbon is cut on a new school. Schools have to wait 30 years to be renovated before they get anything more than teacher salaries and some book money from their board of education.

Principals fill in the budget gaps with pin money that is their share of things like vending machine and school picture sales, and there is little enough of that. Perhaps only a few hundred dollars. At the most, a few thousand.

If they are very lucky, a well-oiled and ambitious PTA or sports boosters group might raise $30,000 for a new weight room or for a new sound system for the auditorium. But such largess, and the elbow grease to raise it, is rare and limited to wealthy school districts.

If you think the state ought to be spending money on private school textbooks because the kids have an outdated map of the former Soviet Union in their geography books, God bless your generous heart.

But first, ask your neighborhood public school principal what they don't have the money for. This is part of the list you are likely to get:

Teachers desks, conference tables and chairs for the cafeteria.

Overhead projectors, TVs or VCRs, musical instruments.

Buses for field trips, money for guest speakers and assemblies.

Computers for secretaries and staff, copiers, basketballs and jump ropes for PE classes.

Security lights outside school entrances, a microwave or a refrigerator for the teachers' lounge, printer ink cartridges and the cost of the Internet service provider.

Extra pencils and paper for the children, thank-you notes, punch and cookies to serve guest readers and parent volunteers. A laminating machine.

Books for the library. Toys for indoor recess.

Tennis balls for the tennis team, stopwatches for the track team, blocking sleds for the football team, goals for the field hockey team, athletic trainers at practices and games in case of injury.

Teacher training and the money to pay substitute teachers while the teachers are out of class. Incentive rewards for students who read, behave on the bus or have good attendance. Special reading or math programs.

And textbooks.

Public schools are often budgeted for only part of the money they need for new textbooks required by curriculum changes. The rest - and this is crazy - often comes out of the money students pay for lost textbooks.

Finally, ask your principal what happens if the roof leaks or a window cracks or a door lock is broken, and the principal will tell you that the school takes its place at the end of a long list of repairs.

If the Maryland General Assembly wants to throw money out the State House windows to all the demonstrating private school parents below, they can. We elected them, after all.

But they'd better make sure the public schools are in blue-ribbon shape first, because public school parents vote, too.

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