UPDATE: Private school aid bill stalled in House as clock ticks

By Andy Rosen

A House subcommittee has suspended work on a Senate-passed bill aiding private schools as members wait for a state Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of controversial changes to the measure.

Members of the House Ways and Means Education Subcommittee requested an opinion from Attorney General Doug Gansler’s office over the constitutionality of making the program into direct grants for private schools, as opposed to a tax credit as originally proposed.

Religious advocates who have been pushing for the tax credit program said the new proposal “guts the bill,” and the House version of the Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers (BOAST) tax credit is running out of time. The full committee could take up the measure in the final hours of the session, depending on what Gansler’s office decides.

Early in the day, delegates were looking at a limited $10 million program that would apparently exclude most Jewish institutions. The plan has upset religious advocates that have worked side by side on the issue.

Time would be short for the measure to pass the House, but its advocates are protesting that the proposal totally undermines the original intent, making it difficult to reconcile with a version the Senate passed weeks ago.

The Senate passed a bill that would cost nothing in fiscal 2011, but would allow the governor to decide how much to put aside for tax credits in future years.

The House version sets aside $5 million in operating grants for nonpublic schools and $5 million for capital improvements. It would be targeted toward longstanding institutions that haven’t changed location in 25 years and have declining enrollment.

Because of the restrictions, none of the Jewish schools in the state would qualify, according to Ariel Sadwin, executive director of Agudath Israel of Maryland, an advocacy organization for the Jewish community. He said many of the schools in the state are growing, and have moved to new quarters for that reason.

The Senate-passed bill provides a tax credit for contributions to a broadly-defined group of private programs, and Sadwin said growing schools should get the benefit too.

“These are taxpaying families,” he said. “And they yield no return on their tax investments that the public schools are receiving.”

The Maryland Catholic Conference won’t support the House version as drafted, said Executive Director Mary Ellen Russell. She said her organization will look for compromise, even though she acknowledged that the House proposal would benefit some Catholic schools.

Religious groups have worked on this issue together for several years, and she said the alliance will remain. Russell said there should have been more discussion of the House measure, noting that proposed changes to the legislation were not made public until Saturday evening.

“It’s just very hard to consider this a good faith effort,” Russell said.

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