Supporters of Maryland private and parochial schools are once again taking their annual crusade for financial assistance to Annapolis, where they hope to persuade lawmakers to share some of the state riches with them.
With record budget surpluses and a massive settlement with the big tobacco companies filling state coffers, Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) is considering giving private schools $7 million to help buy textbooks, aides say. It would be the first time Maryland has ever extended financial aid to non-public schools.
Yet the governor's encouraging signals toward private schools already are triggering a battle with teachers unions and civil liberties advocates.
"It would be a bad public policy move," said Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, citing "the unmet needs of the public school children. The top priority of public dollars should be public schools."
Aides say that Glendening's priority remains public schools but note that thousands of children in the state attend private schools, many that cater to lower-income families.
"The governor wants to ensure that every child in Maryland has the tools they need for a quality education," said spokeswoman Michelle Byrnie.
The campaign for private school funding is spearheaded by the Maryland Catholic Conference, which tonight is organizing rallies of parents at 25 parochial schools in the state.
"We want legislators to see first-hand the public service Catholic schools are providing and to see the people who are struggling to send their children there," said Mary Ellen Russell, a lobbyist for the group.
Private schools have redoubled their efforts to gain state support in recent years and last year nearly won a crucial symbolic victory--a bill that would have allowed teachers to fulfill the obligations of a state-funded scholarship by working in private or public schools.
A bill allowing income tax deductions for donations of computer equipment to private schools passed the state House of Delegates before stalling in the Senate last year. Others, such as tax credits for private school tuition, have consistently failed.
Russell argues that Maryland's approximately 500 private schools are performing a major public service by taking nearly 134,000 children out of the public school system--a savings, she estimates, of nearly $800 million a year for the state.
She claims, too, that Maryland faces no church-state barrier in extending aid to religious schools. Thirty-seven other states provide some assistance to private schools, such as transportation, textbook funding, special education or tax benefits, she said, and the federal government provides aid to private schools that teach a large number of low-income children.
Russell said they have asked Glendening for aid in past years and are hopeful the state's new prosperity will make it happen this year.
"He's never said 'No,' and that's what we've been hanging our hat on for some time. It's always 'Not this time,' " she said. Though private schools originally sought $14 million for computer technology as well as textbooks, Russell said they now are asking just for textbook funding--the equivalent of $50 per student--while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case involving federal funding of private school technology.
She says that parochial schools would use the money for only non-religious textbooks. Pence argues that it makes no difference:
"Money going to support sectarian schools really is a way of supporting [religious] education inappropriately," he said. "It frees up resources that will be used to promote sectarian purposes."