Bailout Wipeout: Religious School Aid Scheme Fails In Maryland Legislature

The Maryland bill was little more than a bailout for Roman Catholic schools.

Yesterday, we reported here at “The Wall of Separation” about a dangerous legislative effort afoot in Maryland to directly subsidize religious schools. Monday was the last day the General Assembly would be in session, and one of the bills remaining would have allocated $10 million in direct tax support to religious schools in danger of shutting down.

In reality, this bill was little more than a bailout for Roman Catholic schools. Several of them have closed in Baltimore recently, and some lawmakers (as well as Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley) seemed determined to find a way to use public funds to keep the schools afloat.

Today I’m happy to report that this misguided gambit failed. Lawmakers got nervous about the possibility of the legislation violating church-state separation and decided that asking the attorney general for an opinion might be a good idea. This effectively kills the measure for this session.

As a resident of Maryland with two children attending public schools, I have to say I was appalled by this entire incident. The church-state ramifications of this proposed legislation were bad enough, but at the attempted giveaway to private schools came at the worst possible time.

Like many states, Maryland is awash in red ink. We’re all tightening the belt. I’ve seen how this has affected public schools. My son’s elementary school is overcrowded. He takes some classes in cramped trailers that are cold in the winter and hot in the spring. Some teachers and support staff have been let go. Plans to build a gym at the school always remain that – just plans. There’s never any money to actually break ground.

Most parents in my area, I think, understand that these are tough times. We’re willing to share the sacrifice and do what’s necessary to help the schools and our kids. When my son needed a fancy graphing calculator for math class that the school could not provide, I bought it for him and found a used model on Ebay to donate to the class.

In light of this, you can see why parents were upset to think that state officials might even consider propping up a private school system. Ironically, the reason many of our public schools are overcrowded is that some people have decided that in these difficult times, they no longer can or want to pay private school tuition.

Incredibly, some Maryland lawmakers responded to that not by increasing funding for public schools but toying with a private school bailout!

Americans United worked hard to derail this raid on the public treasury. And we had a lot of help from allied education and advocacy groups – as well as Maryland AU members who responded to the call and contacted their legislators. (Thanks, everyone!)

We stopped it this time. But I know we have to remain on alert. The private school aid scheme in Maryland started out as a tuition tax credit. The idea was to give businesses a 75 percent tax write-off for money they donate to groups that provide vouchers. It’s a type of backdoor voucher scheme that is catching on in some states.

For some reason, the tax-credit bill was altered and became a direct funding plan. That killed it. I’m grateful, but I plan to keep a close watch on my legislators next year in case the original tax-credit scheme resurfaces.

Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. The defeat of this bill is a fitting tribute to him, as Jefferson always opposed taxing anyone to pay for someone else’s religion. Remember his famous declaration from the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical”?

The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is also often attributed to Jefferson. In actuality, it was uttered by Wendell Phillips, a 19th Century abolitionist. Regardless of who said it, the sentiment is spot on. It should remain our watchword in Maryland elsewhere.