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Published in Print: April 12, 2000, as Aid for Private Schools Approved in Maryland

Aid for Private Schools Approved in Maryland

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Despite vehement protests by teachers' unions, Maryland legislators last week approved a measure that would use public money to buy textbooks for students at all but the state's most expensive private schools.

Following the lead of 17 states that already subsidize private school textbooks, the lawmakers approved a package that would provide $6 million in textbook aid for students attending religious and other private schools. The money was tucked into the state's $19 billion budget bill for fiscal 2001, which won final legislative approval on April 4 and which Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign later this month.

The textbook program, designed to benefit most of the state's estimated 500 nonpublic schools, would be paid for exclusively from the state's $4.4 billion share of a multistate settlement with the nation's cigarette makers.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mr. Glendening, said the Democratic governor was pleased the legislature approved a plan that would so broadly benefit Maryland students at a time of economic prosperity.

"The governor wants to see that every child in Maryland has the tools necessary to receive a quality education," she said.

Not every one of the state's 135,000 private school students would actually qualify for the new aid, which is expected to amount to about $60 per eligible student.

Costly Schools Excluded

To avoid the perception that public dollars would be underwriting educational expenses for the wealthy, lawmakers added language that bars students attending the priciest schools from getting subsidized textbooks.

Students at schools with tuition that exceeds the average per-pupil expenditure in the state's public schools would not eligible for the aid.

State education officials had not set a tuition ceiling as of last week, but an aide to the House of Delegates said the figure would be roughly $7,400. Private school leaders estimate that the ceiling would bar students in one-quarter, or about 125, of Maryland's private schools from benefiting from the program.

The legislators further stipulated that private schools in which at least 20 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches would qualify for $90 per pupil in aid.

Under the plan, the state education department would purchase the textbooks that schools said they needed. Book vendors would then distribute them to students in eligible schools. Neither students nor schools would receive state money directly.

Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, based in Germantown, Md., said Maryland's means-tested approach to private school aid is unusual. "In most states that make textbook aid available, it's available to all students," he said.

Since a 1930 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed states to lend books to students attending religious schools, 37 states have passed laws that authorize state aid for a range of private school expenses, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Seventeen states buy books for, or lend them to, students in private and religious schools, while 28 states permit students in such schools to receive transportation benefits.

Maryland's sliding-scale textbook-loan program was the only way to make the concept palatable to some lawmakers who are ambivalent about allocating state money to benefit private education, some lawmakers said.

Religious schools leaders, who have been lobbying for such a program for more than 12 years, last week hailed the legislature's action as historic.

"This will make an enormous amount of difference for our students, who are mostly middle- to lower-middle-class," said Dick Dowling, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. Estimating that Maryland's Roman Catholic schools enroll roughly 58,000 students, Mr. Dowling said the new aid program was a matter of fairness.

"Inasmuch as parents are paying taxes for schools attended by other people's children, there should be at least some payback," he said.

Opposition to Aid

But teachers' unions and civil liberties groups, who protested the program in the state capital of Annapolis last week, said that the expenditure would undermine financial support for public schools that are struggling.

"The needs of students attending Maryland public schools have certainly not been met, and the very idea that public monies would be siphoned off to private schools is abhorrent to us," said Karl Pence, the president of the 52,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, the Democrat who shepherded the bill through the House, dismissed the argument that public schools would be harmed by the expenditure.

"This state has made a substantial commitment to public school funding," said Mr. Rawlings, the chairman of the House appropriations committee.

Ms. Guillory, the governor's spokeswoman, agreed, saying that $6 million was a tiny slice of the $3 billion budget that the legislature has approved for public schools in fiscal 2001. "This is a very small amount," she said.

Vol. 19, Issue 31, Pages 32,38

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