By ERIKA WOODWARD
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 24, 2009)—Parents better hope Rover doesn't eat Johnny's homework, because they could lose little Johnny's tax credit if a bill heard in the House Tuesday becomes law.
Advocates and teachers frustrated by unruly classroom behavior championed the bill, which would prevent parents from claiming their child as a dependent for Maryland income tax purposes if the child failed to meet minimum homework requirements; was unlawfully absent for 20 percent of the year; or was suspended for disrespect, insubordination, or classroom disruption.
Maryland's child tax credit is worth up to $325 a year, depending on income.
Teachers who've ducked flying trash cans, dodged students' spit and been cut by curse words told the Ways and Means Committee it's time parents took a hit in their wallets for their children who refuse to follow rules.
"I've been called a bald-headed 'B' this year," said Theresa Mitchell Dudley, a middle school teacher in Prince George's County, before volunteering to describe for any confused committee member what four letters followed the 'B.'
The name-caller was suspended for five days. But Dudley said suspension is not a harsh enough punishment, especially if the assailant is a repeat offender.
Michele Cormier, a teacher at an alternative school in Howard County, said she was physically assaulted by a 17-year-old student.
"If she had done this in the 7-Eleven in June, she would have been in jail," said Cormier.
Her assailant was not suspended, but if the bill were enacted, at least the assailant's parents might have been arrested by the loss of a tax write-off.
Still Delegate Gerron Levi, D-Prince George's, a sponsor of the bill, said it's not about the money. In fact, she hopes every parent in the state can continue to claim their children as dependents as long as they continue to live off their parents' money—or as long as the law allows—whichever comes first.
"The goal is not for the bill to collect any money ... it's to bring the families and communities in and engage them early," she said, saying that parents would keep the tax credit if they attended a conference at the school, completed a community resource program, or won in appeal to the county or state board.
While many committee members expressed their sympathy for the tired teachers' plight, they questioned whether a behavior tax was the cure-all for taxing behaviors.
"Why are we not looking more at the services being the solution?" said Delegate Craig Rice, D-Montgomery, referring to rules and programs already in place to thwart misbehavior.
Other delegates and advocacy groups said slashing a tax credit for parents of troubled kids would disproportionately affect low-income families or those with children with developmental disabilities.
Opposition was substantial, including the Maryland State Department of Education, the Maryland Disability Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Public School Superintendents' Association of Maryland.
But Karen Pumphrey, a teacher for 10 years, said she has faith the bill targets at-risk populations for the good.
"I recognize that they believe the bill targets at-risk parents and at-risk populations, but I believe that population is already being disenfranchised by unsafe learning conditions," she said. "They are the ones that are disproportionately paying the price."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.