AUGUSTA — The Maine House sent mixed messages Tuesday about its position on the use of tax money to help support private and parochial schools.

Legislators voted to support a bill that would provide an income tax credit of as much as $1,000 to parents who send their children to private or religious schools.

The proposal, L.D. 1092, was approved 75-67 despite a Senate vote against it and a projected cost of about $25 million in lost revenue over the next two years.

Then the House voted narrowly against L.D. 250, which would allow cities and towns to use public money to subsidize parents for private-school tuition. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, was defeated 73-71.

The Senate will take up both measures in the coming days.

Opponents of the bills said Tuesday that public funds should be spent on public schools. Supporters saw it as an issue of local control, and said parents who aren’t satisfied with their public school options shouldn’t have to pay for a system they don’t use.

“If the parents are not comfortable with the public school option, they have no choice but to either foot the bill themselves or send their children to a school that they are (uncomfortable with),” Volk said during the floor debate on her proposal. “This bill is about choice on the part of parents, and choice on the part of towns who know the reputation of a school and trust parents to make good choices for their children.”

Rep. Dick Wagner, D-Lewiston, the ranking House Democrat on the Legislature’s Education Committee, said he doesn’t see why public money should be used to support private schools, whether they are religious or not.

“My concern is that we have public schools,” he said in an interview after the votes. “And if people don’t like going to public schools, they can go elsewhere.”

Wagner, who is serving his third term in the Legislature, said similar bills have been brought forward in the past, but none has received as much support.

“My assumption is (that) there’s a bloc of people who have entered the House this time who want the parochial schools, probably, supported,” Wagner said. “Some of (the schools) are struggling, and I know that the diocese would love to have some more money from the public trough.”

Marc Mutty of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, which supports both bills, said they would help keep some Catholic schools open and save tax money in the long run.

“Parents are finding it increasingly difficult to subsidize private education and pay their taxes,” he said. “If these schools are going to remain an option, this kind of action is absolutely essential. If the Catholic schools close and if the other private schools close, the burden falls on the state to educate these children.”

Mutty said support for the measures is based on both economics and principle.

Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, said during the debate on Volk’s bill that he was amazed to see “so much opposition to religion.”

“In the beginning of this great country … the main textbook of the public school was the Bible,” he said. “Why anybody would oppose people having private schools that might teach the Ten Commandments or might teach fear of God and doing right and not lying and being a productive person in society really boggles my mind.”

But Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said there’s not enough money for public schools now.

“This is a giveaway we cannot afford,” he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]