Washington — US Education Secretary Terrel Bell reaffirmed his backing for private school tuition tax credits this week. But he conceded that too much credit could touch off a mass exodus from public schools.
Private and parochial schools "need the break that tuition tax credits will give them," the secretary said April 8 at a breakfast with reporters here. He said the credits might be $300 to $500 per child, about one-fourth of tuition costs.
"I think we need a strong private as well as public education system," he said, later adding that aid to nonpublic schools could be harmful if carried to an extreme. "There is a difference between [paying] the full tab and giving some sort of small break and gesture of encouragement to private schools," he said.
Public colleges and universities are still healthy, despite federal grants that go to students in private colleges, said Secretary Bell. He could not cite studies on how public elementary and high schools might be affected, however. And he left to lawyers questions about whether the Constitution would permit such aid to parochial schools.
Teachers unions and public school supporters have staunchly opposed the tuition tax credit plan, which is predicted to draw almost $4 billion from the federal treasury. A spokesman for the National Education Association calls it a "double-edge sword" because it comes at a time when the Reagan administration already is cutting education aid for public schools.
However, signs from the Reagan administration show that the controversial question on tax credits has moved to a back burner, where it will probably simmer until next year. Bell put distance between himself and the proposal, saying he knows little about the details since the Department of Treasury is writing the tax bill. And the Treasury reports that any new tax proposals will have to wait until Congress has finished with the President's massive economic program.
Secretary Bell also this week:
* Called on local school boards throughout the country to institute competency tests that students would have to pass before moving to higher grades.
"There would be more creative tension in a system that is academically flabby ," he said. The result would be "a lot more homework and less Starsky and Hutch [a TV series]," said the secretary, who blamed the press, in part, for failing to push for such local testing.
* Promised that the new "block grants" to local school boards would have some strings attached so that handicapped students would have a share of federal aid. However, he added that the grants would toss out "thousands of pages" of current federal rules on how schools must treat the handicapped.
* Made it clear that he intends to carry out the President's pledge to abolish the job Bell holds. He said that by next summer he will report to the President on how to replace the "Cabinet rank" Department of Education with a more modest a gency.