Maryland lawmakers at odds over $2 million for private school tuition

Published 3/30/2023 6:17 p.m. EDT, Updated 3/30/2023 7:01 p.m. EDT

Maryland state delegates sit in a budget conference committee meeting on Thursday, March 30. Senators never showed to the committee meeting amid an impasse over $2 million for a program that pays for private school tuition.

Maryland lawmakers have hit an impasse in their budget negotiations over $2 million for a private school tuition program, the first sign of friction this year in the State House, which is entirely Democratic-run for the first time in eight years.

A dispute over whether to begin to discontinue the tuition program has been simmering for weeks in Annapolis and burst into a public standoff Thursday afternoon between the House of Delegates and the state Senate.

New Democratic Gov. Wes Moore plans to phase out a program that pays private school tuition for certain students. It’s known as BOOST, for “Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today.” Supporters often call it a “scholarship” program, while opponents refer to it as a “voucher” program.

Last year, the budget included $10 million for BOOST, which Moore proposed bringing down to $8 million this year — enough so that the 3,200 students currently in the program and their siblings could stay enrolled in their private schools. No new families would be able to join the program.

The House of Delegates passed a version of the budget matching Moore’s BOOST funding, while the Senate bumped the funding back up to $10 million. Now the House is proposing to take that extra $2 million and use it hire coordinators for each school district to oversee the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an ambitious multiyear plan to improve public schools.

The General Assembly’s website advertised a 3:30 p.m. meeting for a conference committee of delegates and senators to hash out the differences in the budget, including BOOST funding.

Del. Ben Barnes, the chief negotiator for the House of Delegates, gathered conference committee members in the House office building and waited for senators to arrive. Name tags for senators were placed at empty seats.

Barnes gave the senators half an hour to show, and they did not arrive. He called the conference committee meeting to order and announced that the two chambers were at odds over BOOST.

“We are going to stand with the governor,” said Barnes, a Prince George’s County Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

Barnes also said the House came up with plans to sock away an extra $1 billion for a long-term plan to improve the Blueprint. Moore proposed $500 million for the Blueprint plan, which the House increased to $900 million by cutting other areas of the budget. They then found another $100 million by contributing less money to state worker pensions and money for thoroughbred horse racing track improvements that’s gone unused after renovations to Pimlico Race Course stalled.

“We think this is prudent budgeting,” Barnes said. “We are moving more money into public education. We are not moving more money into private schools.”

The Senate had set aside $800 million for future costs of the Blueprint.

The Senate’s chief budget negotiator, Sen. Guy Guzzone, said in an interview Thursday evening that the two sides had never set a firm time for Thursday’s conference committee meeting. Thus, there was no meeting for senators to show up to.

“I never agreed to any time. We’re busy doing other things today,” Guzzone said. “In addition, we’re still working on negotiating.”

Guzzone said that he and Barnes had been in ongoing conversations in recent days about the last unresolved items in the budget, called “holds,” including BOOST.

“The bottom line here is I know we have a number of holds, but the real issue is BOOST,” he said. “And this is a very heartfelt issue on both sides about what needs to be done, or should be done, for education.”

The Senate has typically been more supportive of BOOST. Backers of the program say it provides an opportunity for families in struggling schools to have another option, one that’s usually only available to wealthier families that can afford private school tuition.

Earlier this month, Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, told reporters that the program was worth keeping.

“We’re in a fortunate position to be able to also maintain, I think, the BOOST program,” Ferguson said.

“We want to make sure that if we have the ability and the resources to keep that opportunity open, we will.”

It’s not clear what happens next. Lawmakers are supposed to approve a balanced budget by the 83rd day of their 90-day session, which would be Monday.

Barnes said his team from the House of Delegates is willing to try again Friday to meet with senators.

“We also stand ready to keep working with the Senate,” he said.

Guzzone pledged to work “in good faith” with the House “to get to a good place on this issue.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Brenda Wintrode contributed to this article.

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