Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s plan to double the amount of money the state spends to provide scholarships for students to attend private schools is not sitting well with top legislative leaders.
Hogan (R) announced this month that he wants the state to spend $10 million over the next three years on Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, or BOOST, a voucher program that allows low-income students to attend private schools.
The General Assembly agreed early this year to spend $5 million on the program, but it is unclear whether it will approve additional funds during the 2017 session, which begins Jan. 11.
Del. Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who supported the initial funding for the scholarship, said she is concerned about the state’s budget shortfall, the amount of money that will be given to public schools, and whether the new scholarship program is working as intended.
“I think it’s premature,” McIntosh said during a recent interview. “I think we need to see how the money was used.”
Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery) said he considered it “outrageous” and “irresponsible” for Hogan to move toward more investment in private schools when the fate of the public school system is uncertain under a Trump administration. President-elect Donald Trump picked Betsy DeVos, a school-choice activist who has no professional experience with public schools, as his education secretary.
Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan, said the governor wants to increase funding for the program now because “it’s working and it helps kids and families that need help. . . . We need to look for alternative, creative and outside-the-box ideas to help the students who need it most.”
The General Assembly approved BOOST as part of a budget compromise during the 2016 legislative session.
For the 2016-17 school year, the state awarded 2,464 private-school scholarships, totaling $4.8 million, to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, an indication of poverty. The majority of the students are from Baltimore City, and Baltimore and Montgomery counties. About 960 of the students receiving scholarships are white, 937 are African American, and 346 are Hispanic. More than 1,900 BOOST scholarship students were enrolled in private school during the 2015-16 school year, according to the state Department of Education.
McIntosh said she would be concerned if religious organizations reduced the amount they would normally spend on scholarships, and instead used their own money elsewhere.
She said there are too many questions that need to be answered before moving forward.
Hogan has been a champion of school choice. He pushed for a scholarship program that would have provided tax credits to companies that contribute to the education of needy students at private schools. Similar legislation passed the Senate in previous years, but it died in the House, with fierce opposition from House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Earlier this year, Busch said he was softening to the idea after hearing from a growing number of Democratic lawmakers from Baltimore and parts of Prince George’s County — urban areas with some of the state’s lowest-performing schools — that students need more educational options.
But Sean Johnson, assistant executive director for the Maryland State Education Association, which represents teachers, has long fought against vouchers, calling the existence of the program “misguided.” Doubling its funding would be a “bad idea, given the tremendous unmet needs in our public schools,” Johnson said.
The debate over scholarships and public school funding is shaping up to be a key wedge issue during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), who is considering a run for governor, recently called an increase in spending “the wrong approach.”
“Governor Hogan’s proposal to spend $10 million on private school vouchers sends the wrong message about Maryland’s commitment to a great public education for every child,” Baker said in a statement.
Mayer said the governor has increased public education spending in each of his budgets and is committed to “funding education at historic levels.” He said the governor would pursue “outside-the-box alternative means to help students and families. We can do both in Maryland. The only ones who aren’t willing are the political operatives at the teachers union.”
A recent state report looking at Maryland’s investment in public schools found that the state needs to spend $2.9 billion more to meet the system’s long-term needs.
“Everyone needs to understand that when we have such massive unmet needs, any dollar dedicated to the private schools, whether it’s 5 million, 10 million or one dollar, it keeps us from meeting those needs,” Johnson said.