R00A03.05: Funding for Educational Organizations Student Assistance Organization Business Entity Grants (Senate)

The Maryland Catholic Conference offers this testimony in SUPPORT of funding for Student Assistance Organization Business Entity Grants, as included within the proposed FY2017 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 families of approximately 50,000 students served by over 150 PreK-12 Catholic schools in Maryland.

Budget item R00A03.05 would allow any qualifying Maryland business that donates money for education assistance to a state-registered nonprofit student scholarship organization to be eligible for a grant equal to equal to 50% of its donation.  Accordingly, those grants, based on the $5 million allocation, would result in $10 million in educational assistance, earmarked for FARMs-eligible, low-income students on a priority basis. 

This grant program would incentivize Maryland businesses to invest in expanded educational options for the students who most need it.  Particularly in light of the events of the past year, there has been an outcry of public support for expanded educational options for the most marginalized children within Maryland’s education system.  Recent polling showed that nearly 7 in 10 Maryland voters supported a proposal to provide state-funded assistance toward expand educational options, including incentivizing nonpublic school scholarships through business donations.  That number was even greater in some of the State’s most populous jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City and Prince George’s County, as well as amongst many minority voters, particularly when viewed as a pathway out of poverty for underserved youth.

Maryland’s two largest Catholic dioceses experienced the aforementioned need firsthand, prior to the current school year.  Catholic schools within the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Archdiocese of Washington (half of its schools are located in Maryland) received need-based assistance requests of over $32 million and over $50 million last year, respectively.  The Archdioceses were only able to meet around 10% of that need for those students and families, collectively.  This grant program would help expand opportunities for many of those children. 

It is also important to note the significant decrease in nonpublic school enrollment over the last decade due to affordability concerns, as schools seek to provide adequate pay for their certified teachers, maintain high-quality academic programs and meet maintenance and utility costs, often on much smaller budgets than their public school counterparts.  This decline has a shifted a costly enrollment burden onto Maryland’s public schools, many of which are currently experiencing overcrowding. 

However, through expanding options, this grant program could act to ease the burden on the state’s public schools.  Recent state-commissioned studies have noted the overcrowding issues faced in some of Maryland’s most populous local administrations.  Affording parents and students expanded educational options can help to alleviate some of the overcrowding in our public schools.  Increasing nonpublic enrollments through options for lower-income students will also improve the stability of the state’s nonpublic schools, thus acting to preserve or increase the $1.5 billion saved by taxpayers every year due to their presence in the educational landscape as a vital complement to its public schools.

It is also important to note that, through this program, no money is given directly to nonpublic schools, but rather directly to families through state-registered nonprofit organizations.  Those nonprofit Student Assistance Organizations, or scholarship entities, must comply with accountability procedures and regulations formulated by the State. 

The state owes a duty to ensure the all of Maryland’s children are afforded the educational opportunities best suited to their needs.  Moreover, the duty is heightened when it comes to providing those options, and a corresponding pathway out of poverty, for lower-income students.  This grant program is one important step in fulfilling those duties.  It is for these reasons that the Maryland Catholic Conference urges a favorable report for R00A03.05 Student Assistance Organization Business Entity Grants.