ANNAPOLIS – Students attending low-achievement public schools should be able to transfer to more successful schools in their jurisdictions, a Baltimore County lawmaker says.
Such transfers are a first step toward the “voucher” legislation being discussed at the federal level, said the sponsor of a bill to allow the school moves, Sen. Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County.
Senate Bill 722 would allow a student to transfer from a school that has been on the state-takeover list for more than three years to more successful public or public charter schools.
As a last resort, the student could transfer to a private school, including a religious school, and receive partial state funding. The local jurisdiction would determine the number of students allowed to change schools.
Harris doesn’t like the word “voucher,” saying it has negative connotations. He calls the state-paid private school transfers “educational opportunity scholarships,” but the idea is similar to proposed federal voucher programs.
At the bill’s hearing Tuesday in the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, most opponents criticized the bill for taking needed money out of public schools. But that’s not the case with this bill, Harris said in an interview. His measure would take educational opportunity scholarship money from school district administration budgets, rather than directly from the public school.
Of the $7,000 per student spent in Baltimore County, for example, Harris said, half covers school costs, and the other pays for administration. Under his bill, scholarships would come from administration funds, leaving per capita funding in the public school, while making it responsible for one less student.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Harris said, “they’ve (the administration) failed … that student.”
Harris doesn’t expect the bill to pass this session. He introduced it, he said, to spark discussion in the General Assembly, so the state is prepared to receive federal money should President Bush implement a voucher plan.
It’s also a way to efficiently deal with low-achieving public schools, he said. “We need to begin the discussion in Maryland of how to deal with failing schools,” Harris said.
Measures already have been taken to deal with these schools, and vouchers would only undermine these efforts, said Maryland education officials.
“We feel that when it comes to low-performing schools we have a system to improve them for all students who go there, and we don’t feel the answer is having students go to other schools,” said Neil Greenberger, Maryland State Department of Education spokesman.
Taking money from the administration would do more harm than good, said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s.
“I think we have to do all in our power to make schools work,” said Pinsky, a former Prince George’s county educator. Transfers would relieve pressure to fix the school, making improvement take longer, he said.
Harris called the bill “enabling legislation,” which would not require local jurisdictions to apply the bill, but would give them a guideline if they choose to do so.
Because the bill requires public money to go toward private school vouchers, some see it as unconstitutional.
“We believe that under the First Amendment, funding of religious education is prohibited . . . and we oppose the aspects of this bill, which would require the government to fund private religious education,” said Suzanne Smith, Maryland’s American Civil Liberties Union legislative director. “We believe this is a glorified voucher program.”
Bush’s education plan, announced in late January, would allow for vouchers and school choice.