By Erika Woodward
ANNAPOLIS (March 10, 2009)—Every school day Derek Mitchell dons the tie and slacks that grant him admission to a better life and he wants legislators to give other students a chance to do the same.
The 17-year-old son of a single mother who attends Cardinal Gibbons private high school in Baltimore urged members of the House Tuesday to pass a tax credit he said would make it possible for more low-income students like himself to attend private schools.
Sponsored by Delegate James Proctor, D-Calvert, the bill would grant a 75 percent income tax credit to businesses that contribute to nonprofit organizations that provide scholarships for K-12 students and teachers, support innovative public school educational programs or assist public school teachers with the cost of continuing education.
The credit is called the Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers in Maryland and has the support of private schools and a number of non-profits, but has drawn strong opposition from public school advocates and organizations concerned about the separation of church and state.
"I know there are thousands more in my situation that would just kill to go to a Cardinal Gibbons or a Calvert Hall (College High School), just to have the chance to learn, have a better education and be in a better environment," said Mitchell, who is able to attend a private school because a scholarship funded with donations helps offset the cost of tuition.
Nonprofit organizations and private school advocates joined forces with Mitchell to champion the credit they told the House Ways and Means Committee would also grow scholarship funds and help teachers pay for the rising costs of continuing education.
It's the carrot businesses and nonprofits need to continue giving in a tight economy, especially when their contributions are so desperately needed, said Mary Sullivan, communications director for the Maryland Catholic Conference. She said contributions would aid private schools facing declining enrollments as family budgets tighten.
"Because (the businesses) are able to get that much back, they will be able to donate that much more," she said of the credit, which would essentially reimburse businesses 75 cents for every dollar they donate to a specified nonprofit.
But not everyone has Sullivan's faith in the spirit of giving.
Some called BOAST a back-door pitch for a statewide voucher program that will divert state funds from public schools and use them to promote religious education.
"Local boards of education urge an outright rejection of this legislation," said John Woolums, the spokesman for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Maryland Education Coalition and Baltimore City Public Schools agreed.
Laura Carr, the vice president of legislation for the Maryland Parent Teacher Association said BOAST would benefit businesses more than low income students.
Others were more concerned about BOAST's price tag.
When the bill was introduced in previous sessions, it required the state to fund the tax credit for $5 million.
There is no such provision in the 2009 bill, as proponents said they only want the legislation to be authorized with the understanding that the state will fund the bill when the economy recovers.
But money would have to be spent in 2010 to implement the program, including more than $200,000 for two full-time budget specialists, support staff and data processing changes. And even more money will be required of the state in the future should the bill pass.
The tax credit could increase Maryland's expenditures by $50 million to $75 million annually if it's funded at a level similar to states like Pennsylvania, which already has such a program, according to a fiscal analysis.
Some members of the committee questioned whether the state, facing declining tax revenues, should commit to legislation that could carry such a hefty price tag.
"So you're basically looking to pay someone when it comes to a donation?" said Delegate Craig Rice, D-Montgomery, who said there must be a more fiscally responsible way to reward businesses which donate to organizations that support schools.
Proctor begged the committee to pass the legislation on the hope the economy will make a comeback.
"Happy days will come again," he said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.