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Maryland Catholic Conference Wraps Up 2018 Legislative Session

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (April 11, 2018) – The 438th legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly adjourned its 90-day session on April 9 during which lawmakers considered more than 3,100 introduced bills and approved nearly 900 measures. Governor Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr. (R), along with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Jr. (D-27) and Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch (D-30A), signed 114 bills into law yesterday during a ceremony in the State House.

The Maryland Catholic Conference advocates the Church's public policy positions for the more than 1 million Catholics living in the state. Many of the initiatives addressed by the Conference during the 2018 legislative session resulted in a successful outcome.

“As so many legislative leaders have noted, the General Assembly worked in a bi-partisan manner to solve many key issues this session,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “As advocates for those most in need, we are pleased that a number of issues passed that will help to improve lives and build a safer and more just society.”

Among the measures the Conference supported that successfully passed both chambers are bills to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (SB 647/HB 856), and to increase funding for child care subsidies (SB 379/HB 430) and Head Start programs (SB 373/HB 547). Additionally, the Conference supported the Tyrone Ray Safe Streets Initiative (HB 113), which requires the Governor to include $3.6 million in his budget each year, allocated to Baltimore City, for the disbursement of grants to violence prevention or intervention programs operated by a community-based organization in a neighborhood affected by violent crime.

The Conference was a lead agent in advocating for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program, which has been funded at $7.6 million, an increase of approximately $1.6 million for this popular and growing program. For the 2018-19 school year, a portion of funding will be directed to assist students with special needs, while continuing to provide scholarships to low-income students.  

In light of the attention paid to school safety this session, the General Assembly also increased funding for the Nonpublic Aging Schools Program to $7 million for capital improvements to Catholic and other nonpublic schools as part of the FY 2019 capital budget. The allocation will continue to provide $3.5 million for deferred maintenance and infrastructure repairs and renovations, as well as an additional $3.5 million to assist schools in making their schools safer for their students.  

Students who attend Catholic and other nonpublic schools will continue to utilize the direct savings on textbook and technology costs through the Nonpublic Textbook and Technology Program which was again funded this year at $6 million.

The Conference also supported several measures to reduce gun violence, including a bill passed by the General Assembly (SB 707/HB 888) to ban a rapid fire trigger activator, commonly referred to as a “bump stock,” in the state of Maryland. Additionally, the Conference supported a bill (HB 96) to remove financial barriers that may prevent someone from becoming a living organ donor by creating a subtraction modification against the State income tax for up to $7,500 of the qualified expenses incurred by a living organ donor.

While immigration continues to be a priority issue for the Conference, several bills failed to pass this session that the Conference had promoted, including a bill to facilitate the process through which an immigrant can obtain a U-Visa, and measures to tighten regulations on foreign labor practices and expand the state’s DREAM Act.  The Conference also joined other advocates in promoting a bill that failed to receive a committee vote that would have expanded the state’s fetal homicide law.

The Maryland Catholic Conference represents all three dioceses with territory in the state – the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Diocese of Wilmington.


State Budget Passes with Significant Nonpublic School Assistance, Including New School Safety Measures

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (March 29, 2018) – The state operating and capital budgets passed by Maryland General Assembly this week include significant funding increases for Catholic and other nonpublic schools, specifically providing for additional school safety measures and scholarship assistance for low-income students and students with special needs.   

The Nonpublic Aging Schools Program, which this year was named the “Senator James E. “Ed” DeGrange” program by members of the Senate, will now provide $7 million for capital improvements to Catholic and other nonpublic schools as part of the fiscal year 2019 capital budget.  The allocation will continue to provide $3.5 million for deferred maintenance and infrastructure repairs and renovations, as well as an additional $3.5 million to assist schools in making their schools safer for their students.  Schools will received funding for security upgrades on a per-pupil basis, with higher amounts going to schools with greater numbers of lower-income students.  

“It is fitting that the program carries on Senator DeGrange’s name.  He not only helped create it, but was also the one to ensure students in nonpublic schools were not forgotten when all of the discussion began surrounding school safety this session,” said Garrett O’Day, associate director for education, children and families at the Maryland Catholic Conference.     

The Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Program, which provides scholarship assistance to low-income students, was funded for a third straight year at $7.6 million, an increase of approximately $1.6 million for this popular and growing program.  For the upcoming school year, a portion of BOOST funding will be directed to assist students with special needs.  Through this new provision, the BOOST Advisory Board, the body appointed by the state legislature to make BOOST scholarship award decisions, is afforded discretion to provide higher scholarship awards to students with special learning needs.  

For the 2017-18 school year, the program saw a more than 50 percent increase in certified applications from its inaugural year.  Moreover, there was increased demand from students seeking transfer from a public school, with more than 58% of new scholarship recipients having attended a public school last year.  BOOST-recipient families collectively reported an average household income of just $25,123 and 63% of recipients were minorities, including 40% African-American.  English Language Learners made up 33% of BOOST recipients reported.

Students who attend Catholic and other nonpublic schools will continue to utilize the direct cost savings on textbook and technology costs through the Nonpublic Textbook and Technology Program which will continue to provide $6 million in textbook and technology resources on loan from the state to their schools. 

 These programs have enjoyed bipartisan support throughout their existence, dating back to the initial authorization for the textbook program nearly two decades ago.  However, Catholic and other nonpublic schools owe their greatest debt of gratitude to DeGrange, who will retire from the Maryland Senate at the end of this term.  DeGrange fought tirelessly for nearly a decade for expanded educational options for low-income students through tuition assistance, eventually leading to the creation of the BOOST scholarship program in the 2016 legislative session.  Thus far, BOOST has provided over $11 million for over 5,000 scholarships to low-income students statewide.

The Maryland Catholic Conference and the Maryland Council for American Private Education (Maryland CAPE), the state’s coalition of nonpublic schools, recently recognized DeGrange for his long term support for all students in Maryland.  At the Catholic Conference’s annual Catholics in Annapolis in February, Archbishop William Lori, Archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the Maryland Catholic Conference, presented DeGrange with an honorary archdiocesan medal.  Maryland CAPE followed with the presentation of a Career Appreciation Award to DeGrange, the organization’s highest honor signifying an individual’s commitment to all of Maryland’s children, before nearly 1,100 students and administrators attending its annual Advocacy Day in Annapolis earlier this month.   

Mary Ellen Russell, Maryland Catholic Conference executive director remarked, “A thousand awards wouldn’t sufficiently honor the leadership Senator DeGrange has provided as a member of the Maryland Senate.  His efforts will have a lasting effect on the lives of students throughout Maryland in both public and nonpublic schools.  He has been a tireless and dedicated public servant for the people of Maryland, as well as a dear friend to the Church and so many others in Annapolis.”



Maryland Catholic Conference Announces New Leadership

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (March 28, 2018) – The Maryland Catholic Conference announced today that Jennifer Briemann will succeed Mary Ellen Russell as the Conference’s new executive director in June.  Russell has served as executive director since 2008, and began working at the Conference as associate director for education in 1995.

“It has been a joy to work in a professional capacity that so closely aligns with my personal beliefs and passions, and to work alongside colleagues who share that same dedication,” said Russell.  “I’m grateful for the unwavering support and leadership that our bishops have devoted to the work of the Conference throughout my tenure, and believe we have continued to have a significant impact on improving the welfare of some of Maryland’s most vulnerable populations.”

Briemann currently serves as the Conference’s deputy director, and brings more than 15 years in nonprofit and corporate lobbying experience to the new position.  
“We are grateful to Mary Ellen for her many years of service and for all she has done to establish the Maryland Catholic Conference as one of the premier advocacy organizations in Annapolis.  Looking forward, it’s exciting to contemplate the success I am confident Jennifer will accomplish as the new leader of the Conference,” said Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the Conference’s Board of Governors and Archbishop of Baltimore.  “Her deep commitment to her faith and the Church, coupled with her extraordinary professional skills, will be a tremendous asset to the work of the Conference.”

In addition to the executive director, the Conference’s staff includes three associate directors who advocate in specific issue areas, a communications director, and two support staff positions.  During the last decade, Russell has expanded the Conference staff to include an associate director for outreach and advocacy, and a coordinator for Latino outreach.

Under Russell’s tenure, the Conference has been a lead agent in successfully advancing a number of initiatives, including the creation of the Nonpublic Schools Textbook and Technology Loan and Aging Schools programs and the BOOST scholarship program for low-income students. The Conference was a lead partner in achieving the passage of the DREAM Act providing immigrant students access to higher education, repealing the state’s death penalty, and advancing bills to increase the state’s minimum wage and provide sick leave to all workers. The Conference has also worked with disability groups and other stakeholders to successfully defeat legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide for the past three years, and to protect conscience protections for religious institutions and healthcare providers who do not wish to participate in practices that violate their religious beliefs.

“One of the greatest challenges and advantages of promoting the Church’s agenda in the public square is the fact that we can’t be pigeon-holed into a partisan approach to issues,” Russell commented.  “As a result, we have alliances with just about every member of the Maryland General Assembly on one issue or another, and we cherish each of those relationships.  I know from first-hand experience that much of the good work that gets accomplished by the Maryland legislature is thanks to the willingness of both parties to work together for the benefit of the people of Maryland, and it has been a true blessing to be a part of those efforts.”

Russell will continue to pursue her interest in supporting the efforts of the Church to minister to disadvantaged communities, particularly in Baltimore City.


World Down Syndrome Day Observed in Annapolis

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (March 23, 2018) – The Maryland Catholic Conference partnered with several organizations that advocate on issues affecting persons with disabilities, including The Arc Maryland, to observe World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD) in Annapolis. The Maryland Senate, the House of Delegates, and the Hogan Administration issued resolutions and a proclamation celebrating the Down syndrome community and declaring 3.21 Down Syndrome Day in Maryland.  

The ceremonies took place Friday, two days after it was scheduled because of Wednesday’s snowstorm.

“This was a chance to involve representative members of the Maryland Down syndrome community, with whom we work or know personally, in a very special day and a moment of pride for them and those who love and support them,” said Maryland Catholic Conference Deputy Director Jennifer Briemann.  “The day gave us the opportunity to educate members of the General Assembly and raise awareness in support of policies that affect this community and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Individuals representing the Down syndrome community, accompanied by their families, made their way to the State House on Friday morning to be recognized by Sen. Edward Kasemeyer (D-12) and Del. Mark Chang (D-32) during the House and Senate sessions.  Maryland Department of Disabilities Secretary Carol Beatty also presented a proclamation to the group on behalf of Governor Larry Hogan, declaring March 21st Down Syndrome Day in Maryland. In addition, yellow and blue lapel ribbons, the official colors of Down syndrome awareness, were distributed for lawmakers and legislative staff to wear.

“A day like this makes me feel very proud, very honored to be the Mom of a Down syndrome child. I couldn’t be happier,” said Kim Smith, who took part in the Senate ceremony with her daughter Catherine. “Just bringing awareness to everyone that we are all God’s children. We are here to serve and people with Down syndrome can do that as well.” 

World Down Syndrome Day was established 12 years ago to signify the uniqueness of the triplicate of the 21st chromosome, which causes Down syndrome, and raise public awareness of what the condition is, what it means to have Down syndrome, and how people with Down syndrome play a vital role in our lives and communities. Each year in the U.S., 6,000 babies are born with Down syndrome, about one in every 700 babies born.

“It is a day where the whole world can find out how special intellectual and developmental delays are and how people with developmental delays can be a productive part of our society,” Smith added. “Just because they have an extra chromosome doesn’t mean that they can’t be a part of our society.” 

For over two decades, Francesca Pellegrino has been instrumental in incorporating students with disabilities into Catholic schools. In 2004, she founded the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, Inc. (CCSE), a charitable non-profit organization that supports the creation and expansion of special education instruction in Maryland Catholic schools. 

According to Pellegrino, including students with disabilities exposes all students to a wider variety of personalities and is teaches important life lessons. 

“When you take that student and you put him or her in an inclusive setting, they have an impact on all of the other children in the class and the school. The students without disabilities learn the importance of the individual,” Pellegrino said. “The impact of our program touches the entire community. What we do isn’t just about the students with a disability, it is about everybody else, which fits in beautifully with our faith. The beauty of Catholic schools is that they really do teach to every student’s potential.”


New Poll: Maryland Voters Favor Increasing Funding For BOOST Scholarship Program

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (March 13, 2018) – Nearly two-thirds of all Marylanders, including 82 percent of the voters in Baltimore City and 79 percent of all African-Americans polled, support an increase in funding for the State of Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Scholarship Program, according to a new poll released today.  
The poll was released to coincide with the arrival in Annapolis of more than 1,100 nonpublic school students who are attending a statewide Nonpublic Schools Advocacy Day. 
The survey of 625 Marylanders was conducted from February 20 through February 22, 2018 by a bipartisan team – Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. The statewide telephone survey consisted of respondents who are registered Maryland voters, all of whom said they regularly vote in state elections.
When asked whether they support or oppose increasing funding for the BOOST program in order to continue to expand educational options for lower-income Maryland families, likely voters responded in support as follows:
Baltimore City:                                                    82%
Baltimore County:                                              70%
Prince George's County:                                    74%
Montgomery County:                                         62%
Central Maryland:                                               64%
Eastern Shore/Southern Maryland:                 56%
Male voters:                                                        62%
Female voters:                                                    67%
Voters under 50 yrs. of age:                             70%
African-American voters:                                  79%
Democrats:                                                          68%
Republicans:                                                        59%
Additionally, poll respondents indicated they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the BOOST program, despite efforts to foster opposition to the program on the part of groups such as the state’s powerful teachers’ union and the ACLU.  Voters statewide were 58% more likely to vote for a candidate that supports increasing the BOOST program.  Additionally, county-specific voters more likely to vote for a candidate that supports increasing BOOST were as follows:  Baltimore City 67%, Prince George's County 69%, Baltimore County 57%, Montgomery County 56% and Central Maryland 62%.  African-American voters were 71% more likely to vote for a BOOST-supporting candidate, as opposed to only 7% less likely.  Similarly, registered Democrats were 64% more likely to vote for a BOOST-supporting candidate, as opposed to only 15% less likely.
The BOOST program was created in 2016 by a bipartisan group of legislators in order to expand educational options for low-income K-12 students by enabling their parents to choose the school that is the best suited for their child’s educational needs.  For the coming school year, Governor Larry Hogan has proposed to increase BOOST funding to $9 million, an increase that was approved by the Maryland Senate Budget & Taxation Committee on March 8th.
For the 2017-18 academic year, BOOST-recipient families collectively report an average household income of $25,123.  A majority of student-recipients are members of an ethnic minority group (63%), encompassing 40% African-American, 14% Latino, and 9% other ethnic minority students.  Additionally, nearly 750 student-recipients are reported as English Language Learners (ELLs), which is 33% of BOOST recipients reported.  BOOST has proven popular statewide, as there was a 50% increase in certified applications in year two of the program (2017-18 school year).  
The program enjoys widespread popularity, with BOOST recipients hailing from 21 of the 24 Maryland counties and Baltimore City.  However, BOOST scholarships awarded to students from three of Maryland's largest jurisdictions represent nearly 65% of program expenditures. 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 15.6% or just under $1 million). 
The majority of BOOST funds are going to help students who were previously enrolled in a public school.  For year two of the program, (2017-18 school year), 58% of new awardees are public school students.  Additionally, 61% of the total dollars ($3.7 million) allocated for BOOST went to public school students. 

Demand Increases, More Low-Income Public Students Transfer to Nonpublic Schools in Second Year of BOOST Scholarship Program

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ANNAPOLIS, MD., 01-18-18---More than 4,500 certified applications were received in the second year of Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Scholarship Program.  The total applications indicate a more than 50 percent increase from the inaugural year of the program, according to statistics provided in a recent report issued by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE).  While a total of 2,646 scholarships have been awarded and accepted to date, more than 1,650 students remain waitlisted, demonstrating the high unmet demand for the program.  All certified applicants and recipients were low-income, as required by the law.  
In 2016, the Maryland General Assembly expanded educational options for low-income students to attend the school best fit for their educational needs by providing scholarship assistance toward attending a Catholic or nonpublic school.  During the 2017 legislative session, the Maryland legislature responded to high program demand by reauthorizing the program with an increase from $5 million to $6 million for scholarships in 2017-18, which reflected a cut from the Hogan administration’s second-year budget allocation of $6.85 million. Earlier this week, Governor Hogan unveiled his 2018-19 budget and has committed nearly $9 million to the program. 
More than half (58%) of new scholarship recipients attended a public school last year, representing a sizable increase in BOOST scholarship recipients who transferred from public school.  The increase reflects the legislature’s intent to give priority to applications for new scholarships submitted by students coming from public schools, as well as a greater awareness of the program in the public school community.  Overall, scholarships awarded to students seeking to transfer from public school increased from 21% in 2016-17 to 34% for 2017-18.  Low-income public school students also received the majority of scholarship expenditures.  More than $3.7 million in program dollars were awarded to public school students for 2017-18, representing 61% of program expenditures, a marked increase from the $2.25 million ultimately awarded to public school students in 2016-17.  
Under the BOOST program, students transferring from public school received a maximum of $4,400 in scholarship assistance, and students already attending a nonpublic school received a maximum of $1,400 in assistance.  While state scholarship funding increased through the BOOST program, data from the MSDE report indicates that nonpublic schools also continued to increase the tuition assistance they provided to low-income students for the last two years in order to supplement the assistance provided through BOOST scholarships.  According to the MSDE report, the average amount of non-BOOST aid received by BOOST recipients increased by more than $200 for the 2017-18 school year, for an average of $4,535 per student. 
BOOST-recipient families collectively reported an average household income of just $25,123.  A majority of student-recipients were minorities (63%), encompassing 40% African-American, 14% Latino, and 9% other minority students.  Additionally, the 2017-18 BOOST program has increasingly enabled Catholic and other nonpublic schools to further their mission of opening their doors to students from the immigrant and first-generation American communities, as 744 student-recipients were reported as English Language Learners (ELLs).  English Language Learners made up 33% of BOOST recipients reported.  
Geographically, BOOST scholarships awarded to students from two of Maryland’s largest jurisdictions represented nearly 50% of program expenditures.  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 County (15.6% or just under $1 million). However, BOOST scholarship recipients continue to hail from every corner of the state, with recipients in 21 of the 24 Maryland jurisdictions.
In order to participate in the BOOST program, nonpublic schools were required to report on student assessments.  The State Department of Education cautioned 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.  The inconsistency of the assessment data and lack of a norm-referenced basis of comparison for the data collection is a recognized weakness in the program, and the Catholic school community welcomes improvements to the program that will provide a more meaningful measure of academic progress and other aspects of students’ success in the program.  That being said, based on the reported data in the Department’s report, standardized test proficiency was comparatively high.  For example, in Baltimore City, overall standardized test proficiency for BOOST recipients was well above average at nearly 70%.  
According to Dr. Patrick J. Wolf, Distinguished Professor of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, “it normally takes three to four years for students who transition schools under a state-funded scholarship program to demonstrate achievement gains from the program.  The first few years tend to be an adjustment period for the students to their new schooling environment. The schools also need to adjust to serving larger populations of disadvantaged children.”   
In summary, the families of more than 2,600 low-income Maryland students of varying race, creed and nationality from throughout the state of Maryland have been empowered to make the educational choice that they deem is best fit for their child, including almost 900 students who have transitioned from public school over the past two years.  Overall, the MSDE report indicates that the profound impact of the BOOST Scholarship Program on the lives of low-income students statewide has grown considerably in the program’s second year.     
CERTIFIED APPLICANTS 4,531 50% increase over 2016-17
MINORITY RECIPIENTS 1,665 63% of all recipients
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS 744 33% of reported recipients
SCHOLARSHIP DOLLARS AWARDED TO STUDENTS WHO TRANSFERRED FROM PUBLIC SCHOOL $3.706 million, representing more than 61% of scholarship dollars awarded

Maryland Catholic Conference issues statement on William Cardinal Keeler’s passing

ANNAPOLIS, MD 03-23-17---The staff of the Maryland Catholic Conference were saddened to learn today of the passing of William Cardinal Keeler, who served as the Conference's chairman throughout his tenure as Archbishop of Baltimore.  

"Cardinal Keeler was a beloved friend and mentor to my predecessor Dick Dowling, and outstandingly kind and supportive to all of the Conference's staff," said Mary Ellen Russell, the Conference's executive director. "He championed the values of the Church in the public square with compassion, respect and collaboration, and his example will continue to be a blessing on our work in Annapolis for many years to come."

The Maryland Catholic Conference represents all three dioceses with territory in the state – the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Diocese of Wilmington.


Press Releases

Maryland Catholic Bishops Issue Statement On Immigration


ANNAPOLIS, MD. 05-30-17---The Catholic bishops in Maryland today issued a joint statement calling for all people of faith and good will to come together in a spirit of compassion, prudence and cooperation in addressing the issue of immigration. The bishops also urge state and local elected officials to consider ...

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BOOST Scholarship Program Accepting Applications for 2017-18 School Year


ANNAPOLIS, MD. 05-09-17---The Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) is now accepting applications for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST), a scholarship program designed to help income eligible students attend nonpublic schools. 

The state's $43.5 billion budget for the next fiscal year includes $5 ...

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Maryland’s Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) Scholarship Program continues to have a positive impact on families across our state, helping them to pursue the educational option best suited for their student. The coalition working to grow and strengthen the BOOST program released an infographic that highlights the success of the program and why it is one of our top priorities in the 2018 legislative session.