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Lawmakers debate buying textbooks for private schools

March 11, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - When Pattie Hutchison asked to bring her son's reading books home so she could help him study, his teacher at Smithsburg Elementary School said there were only enough books for the classroom.

That's one reason Hutchison and other parents are lobbying their local representatives to the Maryland General Assembly against the purchase of textbooks for private schools.

"Our own children are suffering right now for lack of materials. We could use that money," Hutchison said.

Gov. Parris Glendening earmarked $6 million for private school textbooks in his proposed $9.2 billion operating budget. He's asking for the legislature's approval by April 10.

Washington County lawmakers say the textbook plan has become one of the hot-button issues this session. They have received more voter feedback about the plan than almost any other issue.

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Local lawmakers seem to be just as divided as their constituents.

"It's not an easy vote," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, who did a lot of soul-searching before deciding to support the proposal.

To understand why, Munson goes back about 30 years, to his days as a junior high math teacher at a South Baltimore public school.

One day several workers came into his classroom with measuring tape. They were planning to divide his classroom into two rooms of 50 students each. The reason: Two neighboring Catholic schools were closing and the students were transferring to his junior high.

Although Munson left before the crush arrived, he realized what a void the private schools filled.

"If the private schools are not permitted to do their job, the burden is going to be on the public schools," Munson said.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, and Del. Joe Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington, agree.

The textbook relief, amounting to about $40 per student, would be paid for through the state's tobacco settlement fund, said Donoghue, who attended private schools.

Opponents worry that it will open the door to further private school subsidies.

Maryland has already opened the door for funding private schools, giving money to higher education institutions including Hood College in Frederick, Md., supporters say.

"It's not a private schools versus public schools issue," Donoghue said.

Bartlett, also a product of private schools, said there's a misconception that all private school children come from wealthy families.

Just like public school parents, some private school parents are struggling to make ends meet, and they pay taxes, he said.

But Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and Del. Sue Hecht, D-Washington, are philosophically opposed to public funding for private schools.

"I still think there's just so many needs in our public schools," Hecht said.

Rather than directly subsidizing private schools, Shank said he supports tax credits for both public and private educational expenses.

During his 1998 campaign, Shank said a Sharpsburg family told him their son was failing an advanced biology course in public school because he didn't have a textbook.

Earlier this session, one of the Girl Scouts who came to visit Annapolis told him her public school didn't have enough textbooks.

"That means something to me. How can we expect our students to succeed if we don't have textbooks?" he said.

When the PTA encouraged local parents to lobby lawmakers, Ruth Seidman took on the task of organizing Smithsburg Elementary parents.

Seidman wrote a sample letter for parents and distributed it, along with a list of county legislators and their contact information.

Lawmakers said they have received a lot of input by letter, e-mail and fax. The response from Smithsburg has been especially strong, Bartlett said.

Some lawmakers said they can still be swayed on the issue.

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, said she has not yet decided how she will vote.

Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said he supports the concept, but is reserving his vote until he sees how the program will be tailored.

His committee this week will hear about several proposals to attach conditions to the textbook program.

One would require each county school superintendent to vouch for sufficient textbooks before private schools in that county could get books.

Some private school administrators in Washington County say they don't want the funding if it comes with a lot of spending restrictions. They also don't want to create the impression they're diverting money from public schools.

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