Maryland Republicans are pushing again for funding of a scholarship program originally established by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) that has sparked perennial debate in Annapolis.
The caucus’s “Right to Learn Act of 2023” would require Maryland’s governor to appropriate at least $10 million a year for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, or BOOST, program, which provides funding for low-income students to attend private schools.
Gov. Wes Moore’s proposed $63.1 million budget includes an $8 million appropriation for the program.
Republicans seized on the relatively small annual appropriation, noting that it amounts to “just 0.11% of Maryland’s $8.8 billion public schools’ budget.”
Potentially more consequentially, the Republicans’ proposed bill would also establish a system by which students in “failing schools” would receive funds from a new “Right to Learn Program,” which would allow children to get local funding for scholarships to a different public or private school option.
Qualifying students would receive a scholarship equal to the local per-pupil share of education funding. Those expenditures averaged to about $8,000 across Maryland’s 23 counties and Baltimore City, ranging from about $2,900 in Caroline County to $14,800 in Worcester County.
“School choice already exists in Maryland, but only wealthy parents get to make that choice,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Jefferson Ghrist (R-Upper Shore). “If we are going to end childhood poverty in Maryland, we have to give the children living in poverty more lifelines when it comes to their futures.”
Legislative analysts did not estimate an overall cost for the program, because the future number “failing schools,” as well as utilization of the program, are unknown.
The proposed voucher program would require local school boards to notify parents if their child’s school was designated as a “failing school” — identified by the State Department of Education as a school receiving a two-star or less rating for two or more consecutive years — and share options for alternative enrollment.
The state launched a star-rating system for schools in 2017, but last issued the ratings in the 2018-2019 school year. Republican leaders estimate that about 90 schools would be considered failing under the bill, including 58 in the city of Baltimore.
A similar bill was introduced in the House of Delegates last year, but did not receive a vote in the Ways and Means Committee. The bill was opposed by the Maryland State Education Association and Maryland Association of Boards of Education, among others.
While Ghrist said a goal of the bill was to avoid an annual fight over appropriations for BOOST, there is not a Senate cross-file of the bill, even though funding for BOOST has found more support in that chamber in recent years.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen S. Hershey Jr. (R) said the caucus would continue to try to steer discussions about funding the program through the annual budget process.
According to the Republican caucus, 3,268 students, all of whom qualified for free- or reduced-cost school meals, received BOOST scholarships in the 2021-22 school year. More than half were students of color, 247 were special education students and 1,030 were English language learners.
Ghrist said he hoped the Republicans’ push for expanded scholarship programs would force Democratic lawmakers, who hold supermajorities in both legislative chambers, to consider listen to “their folks back home [who] are asking for this bill to pass.”