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Private schools wary of state money

February 13, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Although Gov. Parris Glendening plans to spend $6 million on Maryland's private schools, not all of them welcome the money with open hands.

The governor included the money in his $9.2 billion operating budget to help private schools buy textbooks. His proposal is drawing criticism from public school advocates as well as those who stand to benefit from the funding.

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Some private administrators say they don't want the money if it comes with a lot of spending conditions. They also don't want to create the impression that they're diverting money from public schools.

"I have a long-standing position that government spending on private schools is a mixed blessing," said Tim Zytkoskee, principal of the private Highland View Academy in Hagerstown.

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Like other administrators, he believes public schools need more tax dollars.

"Our government needs to do everything possible to make public schools as good as possible," he said. "But we certainly will be happy with any extra help we get."

The Rev. Stewart Dunnan, administrator of St. James School in Washington County, welcomed the governor's gesture, but he had reservations about accepting the aid.

"I'm pleased to see he's recognizing Maryland kids attend private and parochial schools," he said. "Support for students attending private schools is a step in the right direction."

But St. James doesn't want to compete for public money. "We are very concerned about support for public schools," Dunnan said. "We wouldn't want to be seen as harming public schools in any way."

St. James probably wouldn't accept a grant if it came with guidelines and rules, according to Dunnan. "One of the reasons we're good is we don't have government interference. We don't want that," he said.

Dennis Hoffman, administrator of Hagerstown's Grace Academy, had a similar view. "As long as it's no-strings-attached, it would be a tremendous help," he said. "But we would want to buy the books we want."

Hoffman said Pennsylvania spends taxpayer money to transport children to private schools, including out-of-state institutions such as Grace Academy. "It's been a tremendous help and it's worked well," he said. "It's a very good example of helping all the children."

Delaware and West Virginia also give state aid to private schools.

In 1998, 175,622 of Maryland's 1,017,293 students attended nonpublic schools, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.

That's nearly a fifth of the state's total student population, and the number attending nonpublic schools grew 15 percent in five years.

The money Glendening earmarked for private schools is a small portion of the $2.5 billion he budgeted for public schools, but opponents say it's wrong no matter the amount.

"I don't know what he was thinking," said Jenny Belliotti, president of the Washington County Council of PTAs. "Public funds have no place in private schools. That's part of what makes them private.

"We're not supporting public education to the extent that it needs to be supported. Until then, there should be no discussion."

The Washington County Teachers Association last month protested the governor's proposal to the School Board. "I believe all of us as public educators recognize it is bad public policy to put public dollars in private schools," said Secretary Catherine Grantham.

The Washington County Board of Education has not taken an official position on the issue, but members have expressed opposition. Speaking for himself, President Paul Bailey said he is against it.

The governor's proposal did not attach specific conditions to the $6 million, but the legislature may. Ultimately, lawmakers will decide whether to approve it and how it should be distributed.

Lori Harmon, whose child attends the public Paramount Elementary School in Hagerstown, hopes the governor's proposal fails. "We have so many needs in the public school system across our state and certainly here in Washington County," she said. "Every dollar is important."

Harmon believes allocating tax dollars for private textbooks could set a bad precedent. "I am concerned that this may open a whole hornet's nest and our public schools will be the losers," she said.

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