Maryland Gov., Bishop Fail In Major Push For Religious School Aid

A tuition tax credit plan in Maryland that looked to be on the fast track to passage was derailed after intervention by Americans United and allied groups.

HB 946 would have provided a 75 percent tax credit to businesses that contribute to non-profit groups that make vouchers available to students in religious and other private schools. The scheme, a type of backdoor voucher plan, has become popular recently and is operating in several states.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church made a big push for the school aid scheme, with the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien appeared before the Maryland House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee in March urging passage of the bill. O’Brien said the measure is necessary to stem a recent round of Catholic school closings.

If the aid is not approved, O’Brien said, there will be no way to “avoid losing these schools one by one.” In Baltimore, the archdiocese recently announced that 13 Catholic schools will close.

Asked about the issue of discrimination, O’Brien replied that the archdiocese opposes any effort to require schools to admit certain types of students or refrain from expelling them.

Observers said the bill’s chances for passage looked good, leading Americans United and public education groups in the state to ramp up their opposition. AU contacted its members in Maryland and asked them to e-mail or call their House of Delegates members and O’Malley and express opposition to the plan.

Americans United had earlier written to members of the Maryland House in March, urging them to oppose the measure.

As the session drew to a close in April, the situation took a sudden, unexpected turn. Late on the evening of Saturday, April 10, members of a House Ways and Means subcommittee altered the bill to provide $10 million in direct grants to private schools and ditched the tax credit scheme.

Now titled the “Grant Program for Non-Public Schools At-Risk of Closing,” the legislation would have doled out direct support to any private school that has been in the same location for 25 years, has experienced a decline in enrollment of at least 10 percent over the past five years and charges a relatively low tuition.

Critics said the measure was worded so narrowly that it amounted to a bailout only for Catholic schools. They noted that it would even exclude Jewish schools in the state. The Orthodox Union, a conservative Jewish group that supports vouchers, attacked the new version.

The measure was also constitutionally suspect since it awarded tax funds directly to sectarian schools. Legislators, wary of passing a bill that might get challenged in court, decided to seek the attorney general’s opinion before acting, effectively killing the bill for this year.

Tax aid to religious schools has been a persistent threat in Maryland. Versions of the tax credit bill have been proposed in the state before but have always died in the legislature. This year, the effort got a boost when O’Malley, a Democrat, announced his support.