Friday, April 4, 2008

ANNAPOLIS — School-choice supporters appear likely to win a sizable victory in this year’s General Assembly.

The Senate has already passed a bill that gives a tax credit to businesses who donate to scholarship funds for private schools, and a House committee is scheduled to hear the measure today.

Supporters of the Building Opportunities For All Students and Teachers in Maryland bill say the tax credit is important to help keep open Catholic and other tuition-based private schools, which are often alternatives to failing public-school systems.

“The bill is a way of providing increased tax incentives for business to invest in education,” said Mary Ellen Russell, deputy director of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

Mrs. Russell said Catholic schools across the state are facing declining enrollment and are having trouble paying competitive salaries to their teachers.

However, opponents call the tax credit a “backdoor voucher” program that would strip funding from public schools.

The powerful Maryland State Teachers Association opposes the measure, saying the state cannot afford to give handouts to private schools when its public schools are cash strapped.

“When the state is facing such fiscal strain, it needs to keep as many resources as possible in the public school system,” said Daniel Kaufman, an association spokesman.

School vouchers have been a political non-starter in Maryland for many years, but private-school supporters are banking on incremental victories to push their cause.

“We’re very aware of the fact that [vouchers] politically is a dead issue in Maryland,” Mrs. Russell said.

The supporters say they have 74 sponsors on the House version of the bill, three more than needed to win approval.

“The program is very popular,” said Delegate James E. Proctor, former high school principal and a lead sponsor of the proposal in the House. “People think that it’s a Catholic school proposal, that it’s a Catholic voucher, but in reality any education organization — public, private, parochial, whatever — can participate.”

Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which heard the bill yesterday , declined to say whether she would allow the bill to reach a full House vote.

The bill would allow Maryland businesses to take a tax credit of up to 75 percent for a donation to an educational organization that provides scholarships to students.

Senators stripped a provision that would allow the Maryland State Department of Education to approve up to $5 million in tax credits, leaving only the administrative structure to approve the tax credits.

The 2008 session is expected to end Monday.

Opponents also say the bill blurs the line between church and state and that private schools largely benefit the wealthy.

“It’s pretty clear that the benefit would tend to go with parents with upper- and middle-income parents,” Mr. Kaufman said.

On the church-state argument, supporters say the state has long funded textbooks for private school students.

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