A win-win idea

Our view: Parochial school enrollment is falling

tax credits for companies that donate scholarship aid could save the state money and also benefit public education

March 22, 2009

The economic downturn squeezing public education funding in Maryland has had a similar effect on the state's private and parochial schools, whose ability to help needy students with tuition costs has fallen victim to depressed endowments and a precipitous drop in private donations.

In the Baltimore Archdiocese, for example, where Catholic schools serve more than 33,000 students, enrollments declined by 5 percent in 2008 - twice the rate of the previous five years. Officials say job losses have left many parents unable to afford annual tuition. By the end of this year, they say, more than half the system's 64 schools may be in serious financial trouble.

But a proposal before the General Assembly could help many of these struggling schools. The bill, modeled on laws in Pennsylvania and several other states, would give companies tax credits for donating money to nonprofit groups that help parents pay tuition, thereby allowing schools to staunch the exodus of students. The law also would allow tax credits for donations to groups that fund public school enrichment programs and professional development for teachers.

The Pennsylvania law, passed in 2001, has been wildly successful; this year, it will funnel $75 million to the state's parochial and public schools, with about a third of that going to add-on programs in public schools. A similar bill introduced in Maryland last year would have capped the credits for businesses at $5 million, with credits awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. But this year, mindful of the dire revenue outlook, the bill's sponsors are seeking only authorization for the measure, leaving specific dollar amounts to be set after the economy recovers.

The bill is a way to help parochial schools - no matter their religious affiliation - that doesn't drain resources from public education and that saves the state money by reducing the number of students educated at public expense. It gives businesses an incentive to participate in the education of their future workers. All schools can benefit from it. We urge Maryland legislators to consider the benefits other states have reaped from similar measures and to pass this one into law.

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