Despite Unprecedented Threats the BOOST Program Survives in 2023

Rabbi Ariel Sadwin & Mr. Avi Lencz, Agudath Israel of Maryland

Since its inception in 2016, families across Maryland of low and mid-level income have benefited immensely from the BOOST (Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today) Scholarship Program, giving them a “choice” in the K-12 education of their children. More than 20,000 scholarships totaling $55 million have been awarded during its seven years, with the largest share going to families in the greater Baltimore area. The program began during the 2016 legislative session of the Maryland General Assembly, the second year of the Hogan Administration, by then-House Speaker Michael Busch and then-Senate President Mike Miller. The initial $5 million allocation gradually expanded under Governor Larry Hogan’s annual budget, increasing to $10 million. Just as the program grew and increased, so did its support in the State Senate, which held off annual attempts by House leadership to limit the growth of the program and their attempts to phase it out.

In the 2022 gubernatorial election year, all candidates looking to succeed Governor Hogan were pressed on their views on BOOST. All but one of the leading candidates voiced their support for continuing and expanding the program. It was then-candidate Wes Moore who expressed doubts about continuing the BOOST program, saying that his educational focus was exclusively on public schools and the implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future (the 2021 landmark bill to make robust changes to public education). Despite that, in pre-election meetings with Jewish community leaders, Moore did commit to “learning more about the program” to better understand its justification.

In November’s general election, Marylanders elected Wes Moore as the new governor by a 2 to 1 majority. Public education advocates in Annapolis promptly voiced their calls to terminate BOOST. Three days after Governor Moore was sworn into office his proposed state budget was released in which the BOOST program funds were reduced by twenty percent (from $10 million to $8 million) and the program was closed off from new applicant families.

This attempt to phase-out the BOOST Scholarship Program did not go unnoticed. Nonpublic school advocates and BOOST parents launched a robust communication effort to shine a spotlight on the program’s success and its impact on thousands of families. Media outlets across the state jumped on it as well, expressing confusion on why a state that spends $8 billion on public education can’t find $10 million for low-income families to have some control over their child’s education.

The threats to the program also brought new energy to student advocates. The annual student advocacy day arranged by Maryland CAPE (the state’s private school coalition) which had been put on hold for three years due to COVID, brought out hundreds of students from a broad variety of nonpublic schools (including student groups from Bais Yaakov and Bnos Yisroel of Baltimore and Yeshiva of Greater Washington) who descended on Annapolis to lobby for nonpublic school interests.

Many of the students, themselves beneficiaries of the program, were quick to lend their voice in support of the program. In a rally in front of the State House, organizers led students in chanting BOOST slogans. Numerous legislators representing both political parties spoke in support of the program, encouraging the students and praising them for making their voices be heard. After the rally, the student groups held meetings with individual members pleading for their support of the vital program.

Meanwhile, advocates for the program continued to keep up the pressure on legislative leaders, appearing on radio shows and TV broadcasts, encouraging the masses to lobby their state reps to support BOOST.

As the budget process goes in Maryland, each chamber of the legislature separately deliberates the state budget in committee and votes on it on the floor. The House of Delegates, as it has done over the past number of years, voted for the BOOST funding cut and new-student ban, thus reinforcing Governor Moore’s proposed stance. The Senate, on the other hand, led by President Bill Ferguson, held the line and expressed strong support for BOOST at every opportunity. Ferguson told reporters: “With the $8.5 billion that we spend on public education, $10 million on the BOOST program is not a lot of money and we should be trying to find as many options for children as we can.” The Senate passed their version of the budget restoring the full $10 million allocation and removing the phase-out language that sought to prevent new applicants.

As the legislative session drew nearer to its close, and the conflicting budgets had to be reconciled, each chamber held firm on their position. House leadership felt emboldened to stick by the Governor’s cuts to the program, while the Senate could not justify cutting such a vital program. Advocates for BOOST reengaged their coalitions and once again conducted a large outreach effort. At the same time prominent and influential leaders across faith communities worked the phones to garner as much support for the program as possible.

Finally, with only mere hours ahead of the budget deadline, and one week before the Sine Die conclusion of the 2023 legislative session, a compromise was reached by legislative leaders to continue the BOOST program without a phase-out, thus representing a huge win for BOOST advocates. The funding for BOOST scholarships for the 2023-24 school year was set at $9 million, a reduction of $1 million, but an additional $2.5 million was added to the budget for nursing and school security at BOOST-participating schools.

The program will open for applications in early May. Stay tuned for more information in the pages of the BJH.

Please visit AgudahMD.org for full coverage of the BOOST program, 529 tuition benefits, child-care vouchers, and many other items of communal importance.  

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