Jolting the public schools

Children getting out of school for the Easter recess and not knowing whether school will be open when it's over. Is this the United States? Where free enterprise and free government demand an enlightened population?

Is this Boston?Where a nation's educational roots were once nourished as if to bring buds and blossoms forever?

The answer is yes. The problem is money. The possibility exists of somehow reopening the schools even though the current budget has run out.

Suppose this city's array of public schools does close? Will fewer people care than there would have been in that still recent past when the shutdown of public schools in America would have been unthinkable?

The question has to be asked, because Boston is only one place in the country where public schooling has become precarious for one reason or another. The hope is that the various present jolts to public education in the United States will make citizens rally 'round this precious heritage rather than give up on it.

Something new has been added to the perennial attacks on the quality of public education. Quality does need to be improved in many places where example could be taken from public schools second to none. The new thing is to so denigrate public schools in comparison with parochial and other private schools as to offer a hazardous temptation: to let the public schools languish while building up the private schools through government policies.

Specious appeals are made on the basis of "giving parents a choice" as to where to send their children. But when it comes to tax advantages for parents sending children to private schools, the choice given them means a reduction of choice for other parents -- whose taxes go to pay for other people's private education. And, in the case of church-related schools -- which constitute the overwhelming majority of private schools -- the taxes of all the people thus go to purposes regularly judged by the courts as being contrary to the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.

At issue now are efforts to revive tuition tax credit legislation like that which was previously defeated. The basic idea is to give parents credit for a proportion of private schooling costs up to a certain maximum, perhaps $250 rising to $500 in later years. It would cost the government an estimated several billion dollars a year in lost revenue.

Apart from the matter of principle, it presents a complicated picture of federal administration and intrusion. Consider just the question of how to decide which is a qualifying school, what with the proliferation of new nonpublic schools of widely varying auspices and educational competency.

Yet the climate is being prepared for support of private education as never before, just when the public schools need more infusions of aid and attention than Americans seem ready to give. President Reagan favors the tuition tax credits. Sociologist James Coleman comes out with a controversial report suggesting that students learn more in Roman Catholic and other private schools than in public schools.The "private sector" in schools is growing.

No one would deny that some private schools have pioneered methods of instruction found useful in public schools. Both public and private schools have something to learn from the effective administrators and teachers in each other's bailiwicks.

But free public education must not get diminished in the process. More than ever the grand diversity of the American population nees the certainty that it can continue to go to public schools and obtain the knowledge and understanding required f or a fair start in a demanding, democratic society.

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