ANNAPOLIS – Arguing that nonpublic schools in Maryland face dire increases in tuition that are forcing the closure of schools, a leader of the Maryland Catholic Conference (MCC) urged state lawmakers to pass a bill rewarding businesses for supporting both public and nonpublic schools.
Testifying Feb. 27 in support of the BOAST Maryland Tax Credit (Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland), Mary Ellen Russell told members of the House Ways and Means Committee it is critical to pass House Bill 812.
The bill would establish the BOAST tax credit, providing up to $3 million in state tax credits to businesses that donate to scholarship organizations and up to $2 million in tax credits to businesses that donate to educational organizations that support innovative programs for public-school students.
Ms. Russell, MCC deputy director for education and family life, said nonpublic schools provide a stabilizing presence in many troubled communities – giving educational opportunities to children from low-income families. They need help to stay operational, she said.
“Those schools are disappearing across the state,” said Ms. Russell, noting that Catholic school elementary enrollment in Maryland has decreased by more than 5,000 students in the last five years. Sixteen Catholic schools have closed or merged in the same time period, she said.
Ms. Russell was one of more than a dozen supporters who testified in favor of the bill. Only one person, a citizen concerned about the separation of church and state, testified against the measure.
Del. Craig L. Rice of Montgomery County said he was concerned about “taking money” from the public schools and giving it to nonpublic schools. But Rabbi Hershel Lutch, executive director of the Torah School of Greater Washington, Silver Spring, pointed out that the bill provides no such transfer of money and that the money would not otherwise be directed to the public schools.
“But (the bill) still takes money from the public coffers,” said Del. Rice. The delegate said public schools face financial difficulties similar to nonpublic schools, and he challenged the rabbi to defend how nonpublic schools can ask for assistance.
“My answer is that if our schools close, everyone’s in big trouble,” said Rabbi Lutch.
Jewish day schools in Montgomery County save the state $36 million in per-pupil expenditures, Rabbi Lutch said. Nonpublic schools across the state save the state $1.5 billion in per-pupil expenditures, according to Ms. Russell. If nonpublic schools closed, there would be a tremendous financial impact on the state, they said.
Del. James. E. Proctor Jr. of Calvert and Prince George’s counties, told the committee that the BOAST tax credit would provide important benefits to the public schools by helping secure additional funding for enrichment courses, afterschool programs and cultural initiatives. Organizations that provide educational programs, including the Living Classrooms Foundation, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Walters Art Museum and the Maryland Science Center, were among the organizations submitting written testimony in support of the bill.
“I want to help all the children in Maryland,” said Del. Proctor, chief sponsor of the legislation. “This bill isn’t just for the nonpublic school students; it’s for all students.”
The delegate noted that the cost of the program is very modest and down significantly from past BOAST proposals.
Businesses participating in the BOAST program would receive a tax credit against the state income tax of 75 percent of their total donation to an eligible organization. Educational scholarship organizations and innovative educational organizations would be able to allocate up to 25 percent of their proceeds for grants to K-12 public and nonpublic teachers to assist them in becoming highly qualified.
BOAST is modeled after a similar program in Pennsylvania.