It may be a private school, but St. Mark the Evangelist is hardly well-off, says Principal Philip Robey. The cramped building in middle-class Hyattsville has no space for a teacher conference room or even a cafeteria--the 600 elementary and middle school students bring their lunches and eat at their desks. The coaches are all parent volunteers. Some students come from upscale neighborhoods, but many others live in one-bedroom apartments.

"I don't think we're elite. If anything, we have less" than public schools, Robey said. "Our parents really do struggle to send their kids here."

This is the face of private education that church officials in Maryland have been trying to spotlight for years as they have begged the state for funding for schools. Their efforts are paying off: Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) this week proposed budgeting $6 million to help the state's 500 nonpublic schools--both religious and secular--buy textbooks.

Yet although the Maryland Catholic Conference--aided this year by a coalition of Orthodox Jewish schools--has lined up the support of some powerful lawmakers, the proposed subsidy is drawing fire from equally influential groups, who complain it would violate church-state divisions and undercut support to public schools.

"This issue has the potential to become the most emotional debate of the [legislative] session," said Del. Sharon Grosfeld (D-Montgomery), an opponent of private-school funding.

A similar battle may be brewing in Virginia, where legislators are weighing whether to offer income tax credits of up to $2,500 per child for private-school families.

Although the amount of money at stake in Maryland is relatively small compared with the $2.7 billion Glendening is proposing to give to public schools, teachers union officials and civil liberties advocates see it as a symbolic first move toward greater support of private education, possibly opening the door to controversial voucher programs.

"The state is taking a huge step away from public education," said Suzanne Smith, legislative director for the ACLU of Maryland. "I'm sure it's expensive to send your child to private school . . . but I'm not sure taxpayers should be obliged to help with that."

But Mary Ellen Russell, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said that "the children are [part of] the state, and their needs are important. I don't think where they go to school should change that fact."

She says private schools are performing a public service by educating nearly 134,000 children who would otherwise cost the public school system nearly $800 million a year. The $6 million subsidy would amount to about $45 per private-school pupil, enough to buy about one book apiece.

But "when you take that cost and multiply by one or two kids, that's substantial savings" for parents, Russell said.

About two-thirds of states provide some assistance to private schools, for purposes from textbooks and transportation to health services and special education teachers, or simply allow tax deductions for donations to private schools.

Glendening argues that the $6 million is designed to help students, not schools--the money would not be allowed to go to religious texts--and that it's a reasonable goal considering Maryland has a $1 billion budget surplus and $4.4 billion from the settlement with tobacco companies.

Many in the legislature agree with the governor's thinking. "How could you oppose giving young people books?" said Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George's). "Especially when you provide books to every other kid in the state."

But with emotions heating up over this issue, inclusion of the funds in the budget will not be a simple matter.

The teachers union is expected to lead the fight against funding. Karl Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the $6 million would be a precedent for private schools to reap more public support. "If this is sustained, these dollars are going to swell and swell and become an entitlement, when the premise for them is wrong."

Many key lawmakers agree. "We feel public schools are not in the best shape, and if there's any attempt to steer money away from them, it would fly in the face of what we should be doing," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila Ellis Hixson (D-Montgomery).

If the private school funds are not stripped from the budget in committee, she said, the governor should expect legislators to attach provisions restricting which schools can receive them. They might choose to exclude private schools in counties with tax caps, such as Anne Arundel and Prince George's; require private schools to qualify based on scores on state standardized tests; or limit support to schools serving needy children.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), a likely gubernatorial candidate, attacked Glendening's proposal and said the state's first obligation is to provide a quality public education.

"Only when we can say we're doing that should we look at what he's trying to do, but we're not even close," said Duncan, whose five children have all been enrolled at one time in parochial schools.

Duncan's likely primary rival, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), supports the governor's budget, aides said, but they did not respond by press time to queries about whether she would want to continue private-school funding.

CAPTION: "If anything, we have less" than public schools, said Philip Robey, principal at St. Mark the Evangelist, arguing for state aid.

CAPTION: The middle-class Hyattsville school's hallways are crowded, and there is no cafeteria or teacher conference room.

CAPTION: Because of the shortage of space, some schoolwork is done in the hallways, where T.J. Sego, left, and Arley Gonzalez are being tutored.

CAPTION: Teresa Dorsey leads her class through the hallway of St. Mark the Evangelist, where a sign is posted outside, right, illustrating the school's belief that it is entitled to state funds. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed $6 million in textbook aid but faces opposition.