By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010; B01
A long-sought measure that could channel millions of dollars in tax credits to struggling Catholic, Jewish and other private schools is making inroads in the Maryland House of Delegates for the first time. It would be a major shift of public money toward private education.
Proponents say the bill, which has failed twice before, would give tax credits to businesses that donate money for private school scholarships and public after-school programs, help keep schools open and make it easier for low-income students to attend private schools.
But opponents say it is a back-door school voucher program that would rob public schools of funding when budgets nationwide are being slashed.
The measure is a testament to the enduring clout of the Catholic Church in Maryland, analysts say -- and politicians are being forced to walk a tightrope between same-sex marriage, which Maryland now recognizes, and Catholic voters, many of whom oppose it.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who is facing a reelection fight in November, has thrown his weight behind the proposal for the first time this year. The measure passed the Senate on St. Patrick's Day and has picked up 75 sponsors in the House of Delegates, where it died previously. The House Ways and Means Committee plans to take up the bill on Thursday, although it is unlikely the legislation would emerge without amendments, said Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), the committee's chairwoman.
Proponents say the Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland Tax Credit, or BOAST, would blunt the pain of some recent struggles in Maryland Catholic schools. The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced this month that it will shutter 13 of its 64 schools at the end of the school year -- after closing four last year -- and the Archdiocese of Washington, which runs schools in the District and its suburbs as well as in Southern Maryland, plans to close one school in Maryland and one in the District this year.
The schools have been challenged by declining enrollment, shrinking congregations and the financial pressures of hiring lay teachers in place of nuns.
"A treasure for the state of Maryland is greatly challenged right now," said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, an advocacy organization that supports the bill. "This is not the silver bullet to save the Catholic schools, but it's one piece of the puzzle."
She said that the bill would help support the schools and that by keeping students in private schools and off public rolls, it would save the state money in the long run.
That idea was echoed in a letter of support that O'Malley sent to the Senate this month. In it, O'Malley said that the bill was crucial "if we are to stem the tide of private school closures in the state."
The measure has also drawn support from Orthodox Jewish organizations.
Critics say that the money should go toward public education instead and that the bill would fund private schools but would not hold them to the same standards as public ones.
"Maryland has strong protections in place to ensure that public schools are providing a quality education to all students," said Cindy Boersma, legislative director for the ACLU of Maryland. "None of those protections are in the bill for private schools that would receive state funding under this tax credit."
Gay rights activists have also raised concerns about funding schools that might discriminate against gay students, parents or teachers. Some Maryland public education groups also oppose the bill, including the state teachers union.
The program would not be funded until the state's fiscal outlook improves. The amount devoted to the program would be up to the governor, who would propose a figure every year in the budget. A fiscal note attached to the bill says that similar programs in other states, including Rhode Island, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, cost about $50 million a year.
Under the bill's current structure, businesses that donate to organizations that give scholarships for private schools would get 75 percent of it back, up to $200,000, in tax credits. Scholarships could only be given for schools that do not charge tuition above the statewide average per-pupil expenditure, which in the 2007-08 school year -- the latest for which numbers are available -- was $12,500.
Businesses could also donate money to organizations that provide grants and programs to public schools.