By Sean Whooley
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland —Hundreds of private school students, faculty, parents and supporters piled onto Lawyers Mall in Annapolis on Tuesday for a rally to support Gov. Larry Hogan’s funding for nonpublic schools.
Hogan, legislators and education administrators spoke at the event, put together by the Maryland Council for American Private Education to support the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today program, known by its acronym, “BOOST.”
Cheered on by the many speakers, including Hogan, the crowd chanted “give a boost to BOOST” and “support all kids” throughout the rally.
The BOOST program “provides scholarships for some students who are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program to attend eligible nonpublic schools.”
Hogan told the crowd he himself attended private Catholic schools.
“It’s really important that you’re here,” Hogan, a Republican, told the crowd. “We’ve got some legislators across the street in the State House that need to hear from you and I want to make sure you guys are ready to make some noise.”
Among the schools with students and faculty present was St. Francis International School of Silver Spring and Hyattsville, Maryland.
The school’s principal, Tobias Harkleroad, told Capital News Service his fifth graders came to Annapolis to make sure government officials knew they were thankful for support.
They also went to the rally to learn about the political process and make their voices heard.
“We want to make sure that kids like them in nonpublic schools across the state are just as important to our elected officials as the wonderful children in our public schools,” Harkleroad said.
Marianne Schwenz is the mother of an eighth grader at St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Beltsville, Maryland.
Schwenz said the potential funding provided by BOOST would particularly help grow special needs programs, especially in Catholic schools, where she feels there isn’t enough staffing to address the needs of some students.
However, she’s happy with how legislators have responded to the nonpublic school needs over time.
Hogan’s budget, approved by state lawmakers, has increased in each of the past three years funds directed toward the BOOST program. An appropriation of $5 million in fiscal year 2017 was followed by a $5.5 appropriation the following year. Hogan’s proposal for fiscal year 2019 climbs up to $8.85 million. That budget remains under review by the legislature.
“I think (the funding) does definitely need to continue to grow, although I do think our voice is being heard a little more each year,” Schwenz said.
Other supporters included Delegates Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, and Dana Stein, D-Baltimore County. Representatives from the Archdiocese of Washington and Baltimore Catholic schools also spoke, along with Maryland State Board of Education member, pastor Michael Phillips.
“Today, this is where all of you who attend wonderful nonpublic schools are going to go make sure that we protect our funding and our scholarships,” Hogan said.
Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy conducted a survey of 625 Maryland voters between Feb. 20 and Feb. 22 that found nearly two-thirds supported an increase in funding for the BOOST program. The poll also concluded 58 percent of voters surveyed would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports increasing the BOOST program.
“The facts are that since taking office, Governor Hogan has committed record K-12 education funding in his four budgets, totaling $25 billion,” Eric Shirk, spokesman for the state’s Department of Budget & Management wrote in an email. This includes $6.5 billion in the proposed 2019 fiscal year budget.
But Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller disagreed with Hogan’s use of funds in a Jan. 17 statement.
“Another year, another Gov. Hogan budget that follows the policy priorities of Betsy DeVos rather than Marylanders,” Weller said, citing the U.S. education secretary, an advocate of charter schools and private school vouchers.
Weller said Hogan should not be funding a voucher program that “overwhelmingly benefits” students in private schools.