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NOW YOU KNOW: Baltimore County parents can’t afford to lose school choice

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The following is an op-ed piece from Delegates Kathy Szeliga and Ryan Nawrocki.

Governor Wes Moore in his book, “The Other Wes Moore,” credits his non-public education for the solid foundation leading to his successful life. After Gov. Moore’s mother, Joy, saw what was happening in the public schools in their Bronx neighborhood; she did all she could to send both Wes and his sister, Shani, to non-public schools.

You can imagine our surprise when Governor Moore’s budget included a $2 million cut to Maryland’s only school choice program, Broadening Options & Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST), and contained language that would phase out the program. This scholarship program for children from low-income families to attend non-public schools is being cut from $10 million to $8 million (20%) thereby reducing Maryland families’ educational opportunities outside the public school system. The BOOST program was created to allow kids in failing schools the opportunity to attend non-public schools like how Governor Moore was able to. School choice through the BOOST program works and there are kids on a waiting list to receive these funds. We are concerned that Governor Moore is simply waiting for current recipients to be grandfathered out, then will do away with the entire program.

Here in Baltimore County, many students have benefited from the BOOST program. Since the 2016-2017 school year when the program was made available, a total of $12,644,833 has been awarded to students living in Baltimore County. Those dollars increase every school year, as to be expected, since interest in the program continues to rise across the state. In fact, the highest number of recipients right now live in Baltimore County. During this 2022-2023 school year, 1,218 students received over $3.5 million in scholarships which is 35% of the state’s budget. Baltimore City students were the next highest recipients with 826 students and $2.8 million in funding. The BOOST program’s overall findings show that the recipient’s average household income is approximately $35,488 and 100% of the students are eligible for FARMs (Free and Reduced Meals). Certainly, these families could not afford a non-public school education without these scholarships. Recipients across the state are very diverse with 56% of students identifying as BIPOC and 1,030 are English-language learners.
At a time when Baltimore County test scores have dropped significantly and high school graduation rates are plummeting, the last thing that’s needed is a cut in school choice. Parents are looking for a quality education for their kids trapped in failing schools. Baltimore County’s high school graduation rate for the 2021-2022 school year was 84% and falls in 20th place compared to the 24 school districts across Maryland. We are only preceding Dorchester, Somerset, Prince George’s Counties, and Baltimore City.

Gov. Moore’s budget does not include any new taxes this year. For that we are grateful. We are, however, concerned about future years as the expansive and expensive Blueprint for Maryland’s Future education budget is facing an enormous deficit. Under the current spending formula, unless taxes are increased or spending reduced, there will be a $1 billion deficit in just four years and a $3.8 BILLION deficit by fiscal year 2028.

The BOOST program provides students an opportunity to receive a first rate education at a financial advantage to the county. Taxpayers provide $21,000 per student to attend Baltimore County Public Schools compared to the average $3,106 BOOST scholarship per student. If those 1,218 Baltimore County students currently attending non-public schools because of BOOST returned to public schools, it would cost $25.5 million to educate them. This program actually saves taxpayers money!

For students trapped in persistently failing schools, the BOOST program gives families a way out, just like Gov. Moore and his sister. Defunding this important scholarship program is wrong. Every month and year that students miss out on quality educational opportunities puts them further and further behind.

In his State of the State address, the Governor quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line saying, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” He used this quote when pointing out the rise in crime across the state while at the same time lamenting the rise in incarceration of young black boys. However, Gov. Moore failed to finish the quote wherein F. Scott Fitzgerald goes on to say, “One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

We hear the hopeless cries of parents who want a better education for their children, but simply cannot afford a non-public school. We are determined to serve them and make their dreams a reality.

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