Panel backs book money

Maryland support of private schools irks some legislators

April 01, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A joint committee of ranking state legislators agreed yesterday to spend $5 million in taxpayer funds to purchase textbooks for students at private and parochial schools, essentially settling the contentious matter for the year.

The decision by the group of five delegates and five senators is considered certain to be upheld by the full Senate and House of Delegates tomorrow.

The General Assembly last year approved spending $6 million on the textbook aid, although only about $5 million was spent.

"I think the legislature is being consistent," said Sen. Robert R. Neall, an Anne Arundel Democrat and member of the conference committee.

"We're doing the same thing we did last year, with the same amount of money used last year," Neall said.

Earlier this year, the state Senate had approved the second year of spending, while the House of Delegates had rejected it.

Yesterday, the conference committee reached a consensus without taking a roll call.

But if a formal vote had been taken, three of the House's members on the conference committee would likely have sided with a majority of the Senate members to support the textbook aid, legislators said.

Del. Nancy K. Kopp, a Montgomery Democrat, strongly opposed the spending.

"It has nothing to do with the amount," Kopp said. "I don't believe that public funds should be used for the purpose of supporting parochial schools."

At the request of advocates for private and parochial schools, Gov. Parris N. Glendening included $6 million for textbooks last year.

The legislature approved the money, which was a priority for the Maryland Catholic Conference, although many lawmakers said they believed it to be a one-time expenditure.

Some lawmakers were dismayed when Glendening returned this year to propose $8 million in additional textbook aid.

The Senate scaled back the request to $5 million.

While public-school advocates argued that the state does not adequately fund local school systems as required in the Maryland Constitution, supporters of the textbook aid said the money would help low- and moderate-income families pay for their children's education.

The legislative conference committee approved restrictions that prevent the state money from going to many affluent private schools.

In addition, schools that have high numbers of students from poorer families will receive more textbook aid.

The decision on textbooks came as the conference committee worked to cut more than $200 million in from the $21 billion spending plan proposed in January by Glendening.

Even with the cuts, which were to be made final today, the budget includes significant new spending initiatives for mass transit, state colleges and environmental preservation.

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