Maryland’s General Assembly approved a final budget including $5 million in the state budget to fund education scholarships for low-income students to pay private school tuition.
A bill to create tax credit scholarships failed to pass this year for the tenth year in a row. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly granted the $5 million grant program approval in March 2016.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) released a statement in response to the passage of the 2017 budget, saying, “It is especially exciting to see that both the Senate and House are backing our fight to provide scholarships for students from low-income families to attend nonpublic schools.” Hogan said the “innovative program … has the potential to make a huge difference to students and families across the state.”
A Hard Sell
Ariel Sadwin, a board member of Agudath Israel of Maryland, an organization whose mission is to serve the Jewish community, has lobbied for education scholarships in Maryland for years. Sadwin says educating children within the Jewish culture is of “paramount importance” to the orthodox Jewish community, and increasing access to religious education has been a primary goal of his work. Sadwin says his organization has worked closely with the Maryland Catholic Conference in recent years on private school advocacy efforts.
“For whatever reason, Maryland has been very low on the totem pole on how they react to nonpublic entities,” Sadwin said. “Since 2007, year in, year out, we’ve worked togetherlobbying, creating, thinking, brainstorming, trying to come up with ways to get beyond the previous failures. We were unsuccessful until this year.”
Marta Mossburg, a Maryland Public Policy Institute visiting fellow and long-time education scholarship proponent, says choice advocates have tried without success to get business tax credit scholarships approved for several years.
“Every year this was proposed, and every year it fails,” Mossburg said. “[The bills] were not going to pass, [so] in order to salvage them, this was what had to happen.”
Despite Maryland’s affluence in comparison with other states, there is a great difference between wealthy and poor school districts, and strong teachers unions are responsible for furthering the educational disparity, Sadwin says.
“You have powerful unions here with so much clout and respect amongst the politicians,” Sadwin said. “The teachers union is powerful and they have a coalition that works together opposing all of our measures, primarily tuition-related measures.”
Keeping the Poor Poor
The Children’s Scholarship Fund Baltimore (CSFB) has been part of an education coalition lobbying on behalf of state-funded school choice for the past two years.
CSFB executive director Beth Harbinson says school choice programs have been shown to improve graduation rates and help the impoverished.
“The answer is simple,” Harbinson said. “Since education, even a high school degree, is the single biggest factor in breaking the cycle of poverty, our system keeps the poor poor. In every other city with school choice programs like CSFB, the high school graduation rates of our students are above 96 percent. There are currently thousands of empty seats in over 100 nonpublic schools in Baltimore.”
Mossburg says there are there are also 1,000 children on the CSFB waiting list.
“That shows demand,” Mossburg said.
Sadwin says this victory for school choice advocates shows their efforts are paying off.
“Each year another couple states are passing school choice programs,” Sadwin said. “It’s no longer just a couple of heavy-Republican states. There’s more of a movement. The momentum of the movement has pushed the needle further than it had before. I think it was the contribution of multiple factors. I would like to say our advocacy efforts day-in and day-out over the last eight years contributed.”
Ashley Bateman ([email protected]) writes from Alexandria, Virginia.