Friday, March 26, 2010

Nothing to BOAST About

Maryland politicians love to take credit for the state’s ranking by Education Week as having the best public schools in the nation. So what do they plan on doing about that? Why, they intend to cut support for public schools while starting a new entitlement to benefit private schools. Only in Annapolis, folks!

The state Capitol is a tough place for public education advocates these days. First, the Senate just voted to transfer teacher pension obligations to counties that every Senator knows cannot afford them. Second, the Senate voted to cap annual state education aid increases at one percent. Since inflation almost always exceeds one percent, that will amount to a real-dollar cut. Third, both Chambers approved bills that make it slightly easier for counties to get out of state requirements that they maintain per-pupil local spending on schools to get state aid. And finally, while K-12 aid has been mostly protected over this four-year term, there are no guarantees for next year.

But times have never been better for private school advocates. They are on the verge of passing the BOAST bill, which allows corporations to receive tax credits for contributions to organizations that send money to private schools. The money can also go to public schools to “support innovative educational programs that are not part of the regular academic program,” but since the bill’s supporters do not include a single public school district, you can guess where the money is really going.

The amount of tax credits that businesses can claim depends on the size of a reserve fund set up by the state government to accommodate them. So the way this would work is the state would say, “We don’t want to spend X million dollars on public schools, public safety or health care this year. So we will allow that X million dollars to go to private schools instead.” The bill’s fiscal note says, “If the program is funded at a similar level to existing programs in other states, general fund expenditures will increase by $50.0 million annually.”

Arizona has had a similar program since 1997 that allows parents to claim tax credits for amounts they contribute to “school tuition organizations” (STOs), which then give children private school scholarships. The East Valley Tribune did an investigative series on the program last year exposing massive abuse and corruption in the program. The newspaper found:

* An untold number of STOs, schools and parents are using the tax credits in ways that violate federal tax laws governing charitable donations.

* Nearly two-thirds of all STOs failed to spend 90 percent of their donations on scholarships - as required by state law - since 2003, the year the STOs began filing annual reports with the state Department of Revenue.

* Executives at two of the largest STOs have used tax credit donations to enrich themselves, buying luxury cars, real estate and funding their own outside for-profit businesses.

* A majority of tax credit donations are earmarked to give scholarships to students already enrolled in private schools, no matter how much money their parents earn. Just seven of the state's 55 STOs use financial need as the primary factor in deciding who gets tuition money.

* Even as they took in millions of dollars in scholarships, the state's private schools hiked tuition dramatically, pushing the cost of private education further from the grasp of middle- and low-income families.

* Tax credits have failed to increase minority students' access to Arizona's private schools. Students at the schools receiving the most scholarship money remained overwhelmingly white at a time when the state's Hispanic population boomed.
Arizona lawmakers reacted to the Tribune’s findings by calling for state and federal investigations. Maryland’s BOAST bill uses a similar system of middlemen to process contributions intended for private schools.

Additionally, these systems have created fiscal blowups in other states where they have been used. Arizona has seen $350 million in tax dollars diverted to private schools since its law passed thirteen years ago. Pennsylvania passed similar legislation in 2001 and the cost quickly ballooned from $30 million to $75 million per year. When state legislators dared to consider cutting back the cost, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference cried foul. Florida’s program costs went from $50 million in FY 2004 to $118 million in FY 2009. That increase came despite a major scandal in which seven private school officials were arrested for stealing tax credit money in 2004.

Finally, prospective BOAST recipients actually defend their right to take public money while discriminating against students. When Prince George’s County Delegate Justin Ross (D-22) asked Baltimore Archbishop Edwin O’Brien whether an openly gay high-school student was prohibited from attending his schools, O’Brien replied, “I think we would expect to have the values that, traditionally, we do embrace, to be retained, whether or not we get a tax credit… I would hope that this would not become a political football ... our kids are at stake.”

The BOAST bill passed the Senate on a 30-17 vote just six days before the Senate voted to hand off teacher pensions. Following are the twenty-one Senators who voted to help private schools right before voting to damage public schools.

Mike “Big Daddy” Miller (D-Calvert/PG)
John Astle (D-Anne Arundel)
David Brinkley (R-Frederick/Carroll)
James Brochin (D-Baltimore County)
Richard Colburn (R-Eastern Shore)
Ulysses Currie (D-PG)
James DeGrange (D-Anne Arundel)
George Della (D-Baltimore City)
George Edwards (R-Western Maryland)
Barry Glassman (R-Harford)
Larry Haines (R-Baltimore/Carroll Counties)
Nancy Jacobs (R-Cecil/Harford)
Allan Kittleman (R-Carroll/Howard)
Kathy Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County)
Nathaniel McFadden (D-Baltimore City)
Mac Middleton (D-Charles)
Donald Munson (R-Western Maryland)
Catherine Pugh (D-Baltimore City)
James Robey (D-Howard)
J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Eastern Shore)
Norman Stone (D-Baltimore County)

And so Maryland is poised to cut its nationally-recognized public schools while starting a new entitlement for private schools that has been associated with out-of-control costs and corruption in other states where it has been implemented. That’s nothing to BOAST about.