A boost for public and private schools

Our view: Tax credit plan would provide greater opportunities for all students

March 31, 2010

The news that 13 Catholic schools in the Baltimore area will close after this academic year has been traumatic for thousands of parents who now must scramble to find new places for their children to go. But if large numbers of them can't or won't switch to new parochial schools, the ripple effects of those closures will start to affect the region's public schools, too. With their budgets strapped as it is, public schools are ill equipped to handle an influx of thousands of new students.

For that reason, this should be the year that the General Assembly approves the BOAST tax credit bill. BOAST, which stands for building opportunities for all students and teachers in Maryland, would give businesses an extra incentive to donate to scholarship programs for low-income students to attend private schools and for enrichment programs for public schools. The idea is modeled after a similar program in Pennsylvania and a handful of other states, where it has successfully funneled millions annually into scholarships.

Here's how it would work: The governor would set aside whatever amount he deems affordable in his budget proposal for BOAST tax credits. Businesses then could apply for those credits through the Department of Education for donations to qualified scholarship or educational enrichment organizations. They would get back 75 percent of the donation, up to $200,000, in a tax credit.

The scholarship organizations would be required to give priority to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or those who otherwise demonstrate financial need, and they would be restricted to providing scholarships to schools where the tuition is no more than the amount the state spends to educate public school students, currently about $12,500. The educational enrichment funds could help pay for students to participate in programs at institutions such as the Maryland Zoo, the National Aquarium and the Living Classrooms Foundation. The bill specifies that 60 percent of the tax credits would be available for scholarships and 40 percent for educational enrichment. The troubles in the Catholic school system have brought more attention to the bill this year, but it is being supported by a wide range of religious and secular schools.

The legislation passed the state Senate 30-17 this year, but it is up for a hearing Thursday in the House Ways and Means Committee, where its fate is uncertain. Opponents of the bill do have a strong counter-argument. They worry that by opening an avenue for businesses to effectively channel their tax dollars into private schools the program will indirectly harm public school students. No matter how many students are helped by the scholarship, others will be left behind, and they will be stuck in a public school with fewer resources.

But the truth is that private schools are so interwoven into Maryland's educational culture that their sudden decline would have more or less the same effect -- instead of less money, the public schools would be faced with more students, but the impact would be the same. That's already happening. According to BOAST proponents, 127,000 students now attend private schools in Maryland, down from 142,000 four years ago. As the example of the Baltimore Catholic schools shows, declining enrollment can push private schools to a tipping point at which they can no longer operate at all; if nothing changes, public schools could suddenly be swamped with an influx of students they're not prepared to handle.

There is also a letitimate concern about how the state can afford the program at a time of billion-dollar budget shortfalls. But all this bill does is authorize the program, not appropriate money, and the concept is a good one. It deserves the legislature's support.

Readers respond

Precisely because "private schools are so woven into Maryland's educational culture," the predictions of a massive shift of students into the public schools is unlikely and a scare tactic. But a shift to public schools would not, in the long run, be a bad thing. Maryland's public schools would be stronger if more affluent families had a stake in them. If there were more middle and upper-middle class children in the public system we could also have schools that were more racially and economically integrated. That would be good for all Marylanders.

Barbara Samuels

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