Why is Maryland spending millions in public funds for private school books, computers?

(Update: Maryland Education Department provides list of private schools in program)

There’s an interesting item in the 2014 supplemental budget that Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) has submitted: a request for $500,000 in “additional funds for non-public school textbooks.”

What is this all about?

It turns out that there is something called the Maryland NonPublic Student Textbook Program, which, since 2001, has provided public funds for textbooks, computers and other resources that are loaned to qualified private schools. The $500,000 request is on top of more than $5 million already allocated to the program. During the O’Malley’s administration, the funding has risen at least $1 million already.

The Maryland Catholic Conference is a big supporter of the program, and even offered talking points to supporters for Lobby Night 2013, which complains, er, points out that other states, such as New York, spend a lot more money on nonpublic school services such as this. Lobby Night was aimed at members of the Maryland Senate Budget & Taxation House Appropriations and House Appropriations committees.

In fact, Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, was quoted by MarylandReporter.com as saying that Maryland “provides significantly less to support private education” than some other states; she cited the following figures: Pennsylvania, about $300 million annually; New York, $180 million, New Jersey, about $150 million.

Here’s the Maryland program’s official mission, taken from a Maryland State Department of Education document, which you can find here:

 The purpose of the program is to provide funding for the purchase of textbooks, computer hardware and computer software for loan to students in eligible nonpublic schools, with a maximum distribution of $60 per eligible nonpublic school student for participating schools except at schools where at least 20 percent of the students are eligible for the free and reduced price meals program, the distribution will be $90 per student.

 

Raquel Guillory, director of communications for O’Malley, said the program started under a different governor more than a decade ago, and that the funding for it does not come from tax revenues but instead from the Maryland Cigarette Restitution Fund, which was created from the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement Agreement with the tobacco industry.

But according to the Web site of the Cigarette Restitution Fund:

The goal of the CRF Program is to implement strategies to reduce the burden of tobacco related disease in Maryland, with a specific emphasis on tobacco use prevention and cessation and cancer prevention, early detection, and treatment. As a result of the CRF Program, Maryland has created focused tobacco-use prevention and cessation programs, cancer prevention, education, and screening programs, cancer research programs, and a strong statewide network of cancer and tobacco local community health coalitions.

 

Where exactly textbooks and computers for private non-religious and religious schools fits in is unclear.

When asked if O’Malley was asking for more money for the program at the request of the Catholic Church, Guillory said only that O’Malley was not the first governor to provide money for the program. The state Department of Education provided a list of more than 300 schools who received help through the program for fiscal year 2013, the vast majority religious, with most of those Catholic.

Under Maryland law, the allocated money does not go directly to private schools. Rather, eligible nonpublic schools must submit requisition requests to the state Education Department and the agency orders and pays for the books and computers.

The textbooks must be non-religious. Eligible schools must “hold a certificate of approval or be registered with the State Board of Education, through MSDE’s Division of Certification and Accreditation” and “not charge more tuition than the statewide average per pupil expenditure by local school systems, according to this state document about the program. Eligible schools must also comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The New Jersey Nonpublic School Textbook Law works differently from the Maryland law:

The New Jersey Nonpublic School Textbook Law requires the board of education in each public school district in New Jersey with state funds to purchase and loan textbooks, “upon individual request” to all students attending a nonpublic school located in the public school district. The students are
enrolled full-time in grades kindergarten through twelve in a nonpublic school in New Jersey which complies with compulsory school attendance requirements
and with the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

California once had such a program but it was stopped and efforts to revive it were rejected — back in 1982. Californians decided to spend public money on public schools.

 

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · April 3, 2013