In the 2019 Maryland Legislative Session that is currently underway, the Maryland Catholic Conference is expecting to see a few pieces of legislation that would affect Catholic schools, including funding for BOOST scholarships, the textbook program, the Nonpublic Aging Schools program, pre-K expansion, and the 529 savings program.

The Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) scholarship program provides money for low-income students who qualify for Free and Reduced Meals to attend non-public schools. The scholarships make Catholic education affordable for families for whom it otherwise would not be an option.

Since it was introduced in 2016, funding for the program has increased each year, from an initial $5 million to $7.6 million in the 2018 legislative session. Governor Larry Hogan promised increased funding each year, but in each legislative session the legislature has cut the program funding from what he proposed to a smaller amount. The Maryland Catholic Conference plans to work with him this year to ensure the 2019-2020 budget includes additional funding for the program.

Governor Larry Hogan stands with nonpublic school students during the March 2017 Nonpublic Schools Advocacy Day in Annapolis. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

The textbook program provides state funding to nonpublic schools with a significant enrollment of low-income students to purchase new textbooks. Currently, schools with less than 20 percent of their students eligible for Free and Reduced Price meals receive $65 per student, schools with 20-40 percent eligible students receive $95 per student, and schools with 40 percent or more eligible students receive $155 per student.

For the past two years, the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, led by William E. Kirwin and often referred to as the “Kirwin Comission,” has been studying Maryland’s school systems. As a result of that research, the commission has written recommendations for how to improve it, including a vast expansion of pre-kindergarten access for all four-year-olds and for low-income three-year-olds in the state.

“The research is incontrovertible that when students have access to especially pre-kindergarten at the age of 4, let alone the age of 3, that they are substantially more ready for kindergarten,’ said Garrett O’Day, the deputy director of the Maryland Catholic Conference. “…The exposure ahead of time to reading and writing and those sort of things they will learn in pre-K programs really translate to huge benefits later on in their educational careers.”

Since the state does not have the infrastructure to accommodate all of the kids who would be included in the pre-K expansion, Catholic and other nonpublic schools could partner with the state as pre-K expansion sites. In the recommendations provided by the Kirwin Comission, private providers would provide half of the seats for pre-K students.

Initially, these recommendations were expected to be a large topic in this year’s legislative session, but action will likely be delayed another year since the commission recently requested more time to create spending formulas for how to fund their suggestions. If pre-K expansion still comes up in this legislative session, the Maryland Catholic Conference plans to encourage legislators to include Catholic schools in the private providers, since many Catholic schools already offer pre-K programs.

Finally, the Maryland Catholic Conference plans to oppose efforts by some lawmakers who are proposing a tax on the benefits of the federal 529 savings program, which is currently tax-free and can be used to pay for tuition for K-12 or higher education.

Catholics who are interested in advocacy regarding education issues have several opportunities to get involved.

The Maryland Catholic Conference hosts an annual gathering called “Catholics in Annapolis,” where Catholics from throughout the state of Maryland come together to meet with legislators. This year, the day will take place on Feb. 21 from 3-8 p.m. and will begin by praying a rosary for elected officials in the Miller Senate Office Building. Speakers will talk to the group about issues related to current the legislative session, then groups will have face to face meetings with their legislators and gather back together for a reception at the end of the evening. Catholic school students will have a similar opportunity to speak to their legislators as a part of Nonpublic Schools Advocacy Day on March 12.

Students of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park meet with Maryland House Delegate David Moon (District 20, Montgomery County) during the March 2017 Nonpublic Schools Advocacy Day. (CS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

To stay updated about the priorities of the Maryland Catholic Conference throughout the upcoming legislative session, join their Catholic Advocacy Network at www.mdcatholic.org/joincan.