Reagan and tax credits -- changes ahead for schools?

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Will Ronald Reagan's move into the White House bring with it any major changes for public schools? Some educators are virtually sure it will. The reason: The new President is expected to push early in 1981 for congressional passage of tuition tax credits.

With tax credits, parents of private school students could deduct an estimated $100 to $500 from their annual income tax payments.

Critics say tax credits could lead to an exodus of students and federal dollars from public schools.

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The tuition tax credit concept has been hotly debated on Capitol Hill for many years. On the last goround two years ago, its failure to pass the Senate and President Carter's firm opposition held it back. A Republican majority in the Senate next year and strong support from the White House now could make the crucial difference.

Supporters say the aim is merely a well-deserved tax break for parents of students attending private schools. Nationwide, that includes one out of every eight pupils. Any resulting competition with public schools, proponents argue, should stimulate and improve -- rather than impair -- their quality.

But opponents do not see it that way. They argue that the effect on public education is likely to be devastating. As students from families with enough income to make a tax credit appealing are siphoned off to private schools, say opponents, public schools are likely to be left with the disadvantaged, the handicapped, and the hard to discipline -- the most difficult and expensive children to educate.

"It would not only increase segregation by race but by economic and social backgrounds as well," insists Grace Baisinger, past chairman of the National Coalition to Save Public Education. It is an umbrella group of 42 organizations (ranging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) that disbanded after the last tax credit fight but is currently regrouping in the face of the fresh challenge.

One major concern is that the credits would not only provide a new avenue of escape for those who might want to flee esregation mandates but also could lead to the launching of new schools with the aim, such as the Southern academies that sprang up after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

"Those really did drain students away from the public schools in significant numbers," recalls Dr. August Steinhilber of the National School Boards Association.

But the bottom line for most opponents is the policy question of whether the federal government should, in effect, subsidize private education with taxpayer dollars. Their concerns are what kind of a precendent that would set for local and state bodies to follow and to what degree the tuition tax credit, estimated to cost anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion, would diminish the present level of federal aid to public education.

"It would change public policy and spell the demise of public schools as we know them," insists Arnold Fege, director of government relations for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers. "It's a live-or-die issue for public education."

"IT would amount to a public statement that it's now federal policy to give money to parents so that they may abandon the public schools -- it's patently unconstitutional," adds Grace Baisinger.

Some argue that when and if the test comes, however, the current ratio of public to private students is unlikely to change much.

"Much personal feeling is that the credit is not likely to be large enough to make that much difference to people," says Hendrik Gideonse, dean of the College of Education at the University of Cincinnati. "Those who want their children to go to private school are going to do it whether the tax breaks is there or not."

Former US representative from Kansas Martha Keyes, who now works in the legislative division of the Office of Education, personally opposes the tuition credit, not because she believes because it will lead to a mass exodus from the public schools but because, she says, it will probably have the effect of reducing already limited federal aid to public schools, leaving public school students the losers.

"And I don't think a credit would be a lot of help to many parents whose children are in private and parochial schools now," she says. "A lot of them don't have enough tax liability to benefit. And there are tuition modification programs in effect now -- it's a common practice, for instance, to pay tuition directly to the church [operating the private school one's child attends] and take a deduction fo r it."

Most of those in the educational community who closely monitor the stops and starts of the tuition tax credit effort say it is likely to be pushed for a range of students from kindergarten through college. The higher education portion, they say, is much less controversial from a church-state standpoint ("by itself it would pass like a hot knife through butter," says Mr. Steinhilber) and would make the package more palatable.

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