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Catholic Parents' Effort In Md. Reflects Role Of Political Bargaining

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Each weekday, an Allegany County Transit bus drives a crew of workers the 20-odd miles from Cumberland in western Maryland to a paper mill in Luke.

On its way back, the bus picks up Mary Anne Mertz's 7th grade son and about 18 other students who ride the bus back to Cumberland and classes at Bishop Walsh Middle/High School.

Ms. Mertz is thankful the paper mill gave her county an excuse to run the bus route. But she still pays about $500 a year in bus fare, on top of $2,800 in tuition to the Roman Catholic school.

"There are a lot of people who live up here who would like to send their kids to that school, but because of the money, it's a problem," Ms. Mertz said. "If they could have some help with busing, it would give them more opportunity."

That opportunity exists in Pennsylvania--just a few miles north of Cumberland--where the state allocates about $38 million each year to transport students to private schools.

Realizing that more than half the states in the country provide or allow some public support for private school students, a year-old organization of Catholic school parents in Maryland this fall launched a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Parris N. Glendening. In addition to bus service, they want help with textbooks and technology-related expenses.

Despite claims that such programs violate the constitutional separation of church and state, the U.S. Supreme Court since the 1940s has upheld the right of states to provide some services to students of private schools, including religious schools. Proponents often argue that the services support individual students, not the schools they attend.

Private school students in about half of Maryland's counties are permitted to receive some local support for transportation costs, but the group wants a uniform policy of state support in every district.

"The parents who are paying taxes to fund the public schools are not getting anything from that," Mary Ellen Russell, an associate director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said. By multiplying the $6,300 per pupil Maryland averages in public school spending by the 60,000 students in the state who attend Catholic schools, the parents say they save taxpayers more than $1 million a day.

The Maryland effort reflects a growing awareness among Catholic school parents in many states that political bargaining can be more effective than bake sales and bingo games in gaining financial support for their schools.

"We've been very complacent," said Michelle Allen, who helped organize the letter-writing effort at St. Camillus School in Silver Spring, Md., where her son is a 2nd grader. "As Catholics, we're reared in the spirit of giving, and so we're not in the mode of asking for things. So this is kind of a wake-up call."

'The Power of Parents'

A major push for Catholic school parents to start organizing came in 1990 when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops decided that the U.S. Catholic Conference--the political arm of the church--should help the parents of Catholic school students form advocacy groups.

Parents in Kentucky were among the first to take up the call. Formed with the help of the Kentucky Catholic Conference, the parent-run Kentucky League for Educational Alternatives in 1992 helped defeat a bid to make Catholic school teachers ineligible for a state student-loan forgiveness program for educators.

The group then successfully lobbied for a new measure to set aside $2 million in state funds each year for transportation costs for private school students. School districts in Kentucky now can bus private school students and then seek reimbursement from the pool.

"I lobby, but I am most effective when a legislator also has a stack of pink message slips from parents who have called him," Jane Chiles, the executive director of Kentucky's Catholic conference, said. "That's why I think the bishops were brilliant political strategists in thinking that if we're ever going to be competitive in education issues, we have to harness the power of parents."

In 1994, the U.S. Catholic Conference created a one-person Office for Catholic School Parent's Associations to advise groups in states. As many as 20 states now have such parent organizations, a few predating 1990, according to officials at the U.S. conference.

The Maryland Federation of Catholic-School Families includes parent representatives from each of Maryland's 179 Catholic schools.

"We're not asking the state to fund private and Catholic schools," said Edwin Goodlander, a Maryland parent and an early member of the advisory committee. "What we're asking for is some recognition of the contribution that the person who puts their kids in a Catholic school ultimately makes."

Gov. Glendening's office has received about 4,800 of the parents' letters. But while he sends his own son to a parochial school, the governor, a Democrat, has yet to respond to their proposal. The parents' association also has encouraged Maryland's Catholic schools to post signs showing how much they save the state by not having their students in public schools.

"It's telling people something they don't often think about," said Philip Robey, the principal of St. Mark's elementary school in Hyattsville. "If our 600 kids were in the county's schools, they would be flooded."

Other Models

The Maryland organizers are looking to Pennsylvania for a model of how the state could help. Pennsylvania spends about $38 million a year for busing students to nonpublic schools. The state also pays about $18.5 million for nonreligious textbooks and some computer software for private school students.

Most other states either provide state support for transportation to private schools or permit local districts to do so, according to the U.S. Department of Education's office of nonpublic education.

Though no such law exists in Maryland, private school students in some districts are allowed to ride public school buses on established routes if seats are open.

Since the 1940s, St. Mary's County has paid to bus private school children. This year, the county will pay $1.2 million to bus about 2,000 students to and from more than a dozen private schools.

But some groups like Maryland's teachers' unions are wary of mandating assistance statewide.

"It's inappropriate, and we're not in support of it," Karl Pence, the president of the Maryland State Teachers' Association, said. "We're still scrambling to try to get enough supplies and textbooks in our public schools."

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