The Maryland Catholic Conference offers this testimony in SUPPORT of the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Scholarship Program allocation of $8.85 million, as included in the proposed FY2019 Operating Budget. The Conference represents the public-policy interests of the three (arch)dioceses serving Maryland, the Archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington and the Diocese of Wilmington, which together encompass over one million Marylanders. We offer this testimony on behalf of the many low-income families attending Catholic schools statewide who receive BOOST scholarship assistance.
The BOOST Scholarship Program provides expanded educational options for low-income students through the provision of scholarship assistance. Scholarship recipients are certified through the State Department of Education (MSDE) and awarded through a BOOST Advisory Board, appointed by the General Assembly. 100% of scholarship recipients are eligible for the Free and Reduced-Price Meal Program (FARMs). Now in its second school year, BOOST scholarships are empowering thousands of families across Maryland with educational options.
The success of the BOOST Scholarship Program in the 2016-17 school year propelled applications to new heights for 2017-18. For this school year, there was a 50% increase in applications, to over 4,500 certified applicants. Around 1,650 students were waitlisted. Priority was given to public school students and 890 public school students were awarded scholarships. Public school students were given significantly higher scholarship amounts.
A report issued by MSDE on December 31, 2017, included the following highlights regarding scholarship awards made for the current school year:
• BOOST scholarship-recipient families collectively reported an average household income of just $25,123.
• 63% of student-recipients were minorities, including 40% African-American, 14% Latino, and 9% other minority students.
• 744 student-recipients were reported as English Language Learners (ELLs), which were 33% of all scholarship recipients reported.
• More than half (58%) of new scholarship recipients attended a public school last year.
• Over $3.7 million in scholarship dollars, or 61% of program expenditures, were awarded to public school students for 2017-18.
• Overall, scholarships awarded to students seeking to transfer from public school increased from 21% (2016-17) to 34% (2017-18) of all awards.
• BOOST scholarship recipients live in 21 of the 24 Maryland counties and Baltimore City.
• Students attending schools in Baltimore City received the highest amount of total program funds (34.1% or just over $2 million), followed by students in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties (each county at 15.6% or just under $1 million).
In order to participate in the BOOST Scholarship Program, nonpublic schools were required to report on student assessments. With the assessment requirements, MSDE fielded results from over 100 different tests. MSDE warned that the assessment results “should be interpreted with caution”, particularly because they did not reflect a common assessment and, therefore, were not comparable across schools. Accordingly, the Conference would welcome a narrower, nationally-norm-referenced basis of assessing student progress, so as to be able to make meaningful interpretations of the data and compare Maryland’s results with some of the thirty other states with educational options programs.
In all, the BOOST Scholarship Program has helped to make Catholic schools an option for so many families. Over 1,350 student-recipients will attend a Catholic school this year, many having transferred from a public school. The scholarship recipient demographic data cited above mirrors that of our school families in many Catholic schools, which welcome large numbers of low-income, immigrant and first-generation, minority, and non-Catholic students.
The BOOST Scholarship Program has acted as an integral supplemental source of assistance to low-income Catholic school families, fostering a partnership between Catholic schools and the State of Maryland. In that vein, it is important to note that the recent MSDE report exemplified Catholic schools’ continuing commitment to low-income students, paralleling BOOST aid with an increase of more than $200 for the 2017-18 school year, for an average of $4,535 per student-recipient in non-BOOST assistance. The data presented by MSDE thus exemplifies that BOOST scholarships are truly supplementing assistance to low-income students, as opposed to supplanting.
Our Catholic schools, where over 1,350 BOOST scholarship recipients have chosen to be educated, remain committed to working alongside the State of Maryland in providing options for these deserving students. It is for these reasons, on behalf of the families empowered by BOOST scholarships to choose Catholic schools, that we urge this committee and the entire General Assembly to maintain and expand the BOOST program.