By Becca Heller
The rift between public and private education couldn’t be much larger than it is in Maryland, where the public schools are boasted about as number 1 in the nation and the private schools receive less state funding than several neighboring states.
“Looking at other states when it comes to education, Maryland state government provides significantly less to support private education,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.
Russell offered some numbers for context: Pennsylvania puts about $300 million towards private education, New York puts $180 million, New Jersey provides about $150 million. And then there’s Maryland which allocates just $4.4 million state dollars for non-public education. That’s 7/100 of 1% of the $6 billion Maryland supplies to public K-12.
That $4.4 million goes towards Maryland’s Nonpublic Student Textbook Program, indirectly funding the purchase of a moderate number of textbooks and learning technologies. Gov. Martin O’Malley has proposed a $1.1 million increase in fiscal 2014 but the House of Delegates cut all the increased aid, the Senate restored the funding, and the difference must be worked out in a conference committee this week.
It’s not enough, says the private school community. The need for materials and government support in the non-public sphere is much greater than $4.4 million could meet, according to many private school advocates.
“While the 4 million is a real benefit, it’s definitely insufficient given the needs of our families,” explained Mary Ellen Hrutka, the executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Catholic Schools consortium.
“Parents are paying for it,” said Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, the director of Agudath Israel of Maryland's Commission on Legislation and Civic Action. “In some cases, the students have to take a role in generating income for the school, because the tuition that the families pay doesn’t cut it.”
For years, private school advocates have been involved in legislative initiatives to expand the current textbook program and establish other ways to financially support private education in Maryland. Among the initiatives were efforts to establish a tax credit program for business contributions based on the nationwide private school voucher program BOAST -- or Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers. The measure passed the Senate in 2010, but was not introduced this year.
Public education advocates opposed
Some education advocates, however, staunchly oppose state funding to private schools, on the principle that the general public’s tax dollars should not be funding private institutions.
“Most of us that support public education believe that public dollars should go to public schools,” said Rick Tyler, a Maryland public education advocate. “It’s written in the Maryland constitution that public education should be funded by tax dollars.”
Groups opposing the expansion of state funding for non-public schools also bring up the question of accountability within private education.
“The biggest problem is that there’s no accountability for the spending in private schools,” said Amy Maloney, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA). “With all public dollars being spent there’s always a level of accountability that is expected. Whether it be test scores, the textbooks they use, teacher qualifications, or student attendance -- there’s just no regulation.”
Maloney pointed to BOAST as an example of the breakdown between public aid and private school standards..
“Some states where they’ve enacted a BOAST program...there’s just zero accountability,” said Maloney. “The questions are never asked -- whether the students are achieving, whether the right students are receiving state aid...”
Big lobbying groups blamed
Sadwin identified teachers unions like MSEA and other groups such the ACLU as the biggest opponents to private education funding, and suggested that these powerful groups have long sought to gain a monopoly on government funding for education.
“It really comes down to the strength of the pro-public school lobbyists. It’s about the money. It’s about the control. They have resources that go way beyond what the religious school community has,” Sadwin said. “Legislators are very nervous. I’ve talked to legislators many times -- they’re afraid to upset the teachers unions.”
Sadwin also pointed out that the Maryland legislature is overwhelmingly Democratic and speculated that the politics also had something to do with the obstacles they’ve faced in pushing private education funding.
Public school advocates, however, see it as a simple matter of public policy.
“I don’t want to confuse politics with public policy,” said Sean Johnson, managing director of political and legislative affairs for MSEA. “I think it’s much more driven by the constitutional mandate and the desire to deliver good public policy than it is by Democrats and teachers unions.”
Funding choices in education
Supporters of private school funding feel that equally ingrained in the state’s foundations is the right to have choices when it comes to something as important as education.
“[Expanding funding for private schools] would protect and respect the rights of parents to choose, regardless of their income,” said Hrutka. “The bottom line is our children in Maryland deserve to have opportunities in both public and private schools. We’re not looking to diminish the resources in the public school system.”
But Johnson explained that Maryland’s public school system, while rated at the top, still has a long way to go. He and other public school advocates look at the $4.4 million private schools are receiving and see a lost opportunity to further expand and improve Maryland’s public school system.
“There are still unmet needs, achievement gaps. We still need more programs for students who are achieving -- like [advanced placement] -- and programs for students with higher educational needs,” Johnson said. “I’d clearly like to have that $4.4 million directed towards improving programs in public schools.”
According to supporters of non-public education funding, private schools educate students at a lower cost per capita than public schools, saving the state $1.4 billion annually. Furthermore, according to Hrutka, the state wouldn’t be able to accommodate all the students in Maryland if private schools shut down.
“The funding [private schools] get, while very modest, is very important and makes a huge difference in our schools,” said Hrutka. “But when you look at neighboring states, you see the huge difference, and you have to ask why? [This debate is] about increasing the funds going into the textbook program but it’s also about providing more services to students and decreasing the cost for families.”