By DANIEL LEADERMAN
ANNAPOLIS (March 04, 2010)—Gov. Martin O'Malley threw his support behind controversial legislation Wednesday that would offer tax incentives for donations to private school scholarship programs and other education-related nonprofits.
The Building Opportunities for All Students and Teachers, or BOAST bill, would offer businesses an income tax credit for contributions to nonprofits that provide scholarships to private school students and grants to teachers in both public and private schools.
"The BOAST bill will increase scholarships for children in low and middle income families and stabilize enrollment in nonpublic schools," O'Malley wrote in a letter to the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "I believe the bill is crucial if we are to stem the tide of private school closures in the State."
O'Malley attended Gonzaga College High School, a Jesuit school in Washington, and Catholic University of America.
The tax credit has been introduced in previous legislative sessions, but is yet to get the approval of both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill passed the Senate in 2008, but has not received a vote in the full House.
Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said this week that the measure could get a vote this session.
Opponents of the tax credit say that it would redirect money from public schools at a time when money is scarce across the state.
"It would be a liability against the state's revenue when we can barely fund education, public education," said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's. "To talk about re-directing more money to private schools I think is just untimely and I don't think it's an effort that the state should pursue."
Pinsky is a teacher's union organizer.
At Wednesday's hearing before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, the bill drew fire from education associations.
Similar programs in other states have turned the nonprofits that collect the donations and then dispense the funds into "middlemen" with very little oversight, said Amy Maloney of the Maryland State Education Association.
These organizations could then retain a substantial percentage of the donations to cover overhead costs, money that could be going into the general fund, Maloney said.
The program is dangerously close to school voucher programs that divert public funds to private education, said John Woolums of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.
Supporters of the credit, including O'Malley, point out that the tax credit would also support grants for certain programs in public schools and help cover the cost of continuing education for public school teachers.
They also argue that the measure would keep Marylanders from paying for the more than 125,000 private school students in the state by making sure that private school closures don't force the students into public schools.
"We're saving the taxpayers of Maryland $1.5 billion," said Delegate William Frank, R-Baltimore County. "This is the right thing to do."
Frank was one of several legislators who attended a rally for the initiative which drew about 200 teachers, students and parents to Annapolis Wednesday morning.
Much of the support came from representatives of Maryland Catholic schools.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore is expected to announce the closure of several schools this week in response to declining enrollment. In the past few months, the Archdiocese of Washington has announced the closing or merging of at least five schools in and around the district.
"With the economy the way it is, I think you see Catholic schools ... not having the funding available to them that they've had before," said Teresa Skinner, a teacher from Little Flower School in Great Mills, who attended the rally with several students.
"People are choosing to not send their kids for private education," Skinner said. "(They're) wanting that alternative and not finding it a viable possibility."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.