Book-Buying Alliance Urged In Md. Schools

 Article from the Washington Post

Bill Would Aid Private Facilities, Cost State Nothing, Backers Say

By Tracey A. Reeves, Washington Post Staff Writer

Maryland lawmakers reluctant to turn over public money to private schools are rallying around a bit of legislation that would help the private institutions without giving them a penny of state money.

Under the bill proposed by Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), public and private schools could unite to buy textbooks in bulk, a cost-saving measure that could inadvertently doom the $8 million proposal by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) to help private schools with textbooks.

Morhaim said he offered the buying-consortium bill to save money. He predicts it would save about 10 percent of the $140 million that the state spends on books each year. At the same time, he and others say, the measure could help stem the contentious debates that have erupted between public and private school advocates increasingly at odds over public dollars.

"It's a good bill from a pure fiscal standpoint," said Del. John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), who voted against a $6 million allotment for private schools last year and is undecided on how he will vote this year. "It just makes sense if we can get public and private school systems working together."

Indeed, supporters of Morhaim's bill like it because -- unlike Glendening's proposal for direct aid to private schools -- it would, they say, conform with constitutional requirements of separation of church and state, and would put public and private schools on an equal footing.

The bill has strong bipartisan support and the blessing of state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the State Board of Education. It has not been put to committee votes in the Senate or House of Delegates but has drawn 41 co-sponsors and a great deal of interest around the State House.

"I think it's a wonderful idea," said Del. Joan B. Pitkin (D-Prince George's), a co-sponsor of the consortium bill who is undecided on the governor's request for aid to private schools. "It sort of brings together the two ends of the spectrum fighting over the private aid. It's a good compromise for a rather divisive issue."

Others, however, have their doubts.

Several lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of buying books to fit a wide range of educational districts, and others dispute the savings Morhaim says the book-buying consortium would yield.

"We think the savings estimates are significantly overstated and may be wildly overstated," said Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, one of the leading supporters of state aid to private schools. "It's a nice idea that needs further study."

The consortium bill is affecting the private schools debate, with some state legislators questioning whether they should favor one measure over the other.

Lawmakers are considering reducing Glendening's $8 million request to $5 million to make it more palatable to those who oppose his request for more aid for private schools at a time when public schools are struggling to make ends meet.

Pitkin and other lawmakers said they were led to believe that the $6 million they approved for private schools last year would be a one-time budget item paid with money from the state's tobacco settlement. When Glendening sought $8 million in tobacco money for private schools this year, some lawmakers revolted, saying they would not vote for it again.

"I voted for it the first time because I felt like the tobacco money and the state's surplus made it more permissible," Pitkin said. "Now, I don't know how I'm going to vote on it. All I can say is I like the consortium bill."

Michelle Byrnie, a spokeswoman for Glendening, said that the governor has not seen details of the consortium-buying bill and that "his budget is clear on what he supports."

If it passes, Morhaim's bill could dramatically change the way the state's 24 school districts get their textbooks. Except for a few cases in which some books are purchased by a school district, most schools purchase their own books, Morhaim said.

His bill would give the State Department of Education authority to order and pay for books for public and private schools in the consortium.

He argues that a buying consortium makes sense because only a few companies sell textbooks. He adds that school systems should not be concerned about whether the books would match their curricula because most lesson plans draw on the limited book lists of textbook companies.

"It's smart," said David Bernstein, a regional director of the American Jewish Committee, which opposes state aid for private schools. "It doesn't undermine [the separation of] church and state and doesn't set a further precedent with public dollars for private schools."

Morhaim points to the little-known Maryland Assistive Technology Cooperative, a Baltimore-based consortium formed to buy high-tech equipment for handicapped students in public and private schools, as an example of the benefits of buying in bulk.

The council, Morhaim said, has saved up to $25 million over several years by pooling public and private school dollars to buy equipment.

"It's like tongue depressors," said Morhaim, a physician. "They don't buy them by the box; they buy them by the train car."

Originally published Sunday, March 4, 2001; Page C01