Washington — After a decade of running into a brick wall, supporters of private school tuition tax credits are making headway. For the first time a president has sent his top education official to Capitol Hill to give full support to the idea. Testifying at a two- day Senate hearing last week, US Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell gave the enthusiastic backing of the administration.
Tax credits for parents who send their children to private and parochial schools will be "an important expansion of educational opportunities for all Americans," said Mr. Bell.
Noting the recent surge in private school enrollment in the South and West, he said that the administration believes this growth is "healthy and increases the freedom of families to choose the type of education that will best meet the needs of their children.
The President is asking Congress to delay action on tuition tax credits until it has passed his economic recovery package. But as soon as the budget and general tax bill are passed, the administration is promising to put tax credits high on the agenda.
The current push for private school tuition aid comes at a time when many charge the public schools are failing in many respects and funding is either being cut back or questioned. Federal budget cuts will hit public education hard.
These developments, plus the desire to have religion and discipline in classrooms, have unleashed a strong lobby for helping parents send children to private and parochial schools.
Parents acting on their own, as well as groups such as the US Catholic Conference and the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority form the base of support for the tuition aid.
Under a bill cosponsored by Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York, parents of children in primary or secondary private schools or in college could receive up to $250 in income tax credits in 1983 and $500 the next year. The US Treasury office has estimated that the bill would cost the federal coffers $2.7 billion in 1983 and nearly $7 billion by 1986.
The bill's cosponsors are clearly buoyed by the support for their measure. Senator Moynihan called it a "historic" occasion when Secretary Bell endorsed the concept of tax credits. And Senator Packwood said that the hearings were blasting the "myth" that private schools are only for the elite.
However, the two still face a host of opponents, including teacher unions, labor unions, public school parent groups, and civil liberties groups.
Critics charge that the credits amount to a subsidy for the nonneedy. "This is Robin Hoodism in reverse, taking from the needy and giving to the rich," charged Grace Baisinger, who heads a coalition of 40 organizations opposing the measure. She pointed out that the proposed cost per child of the tax benefit would be far greater than the $160 per year that federal government now spends on each public-school child.
Jeanne Silver Franki, head of a New York City citizens group opposing tuition tax credits, testified: "We oppose this legislation because it will fundamentally change the quality and fabric of American society."
Perhaps most difficult hurdle of all would be the Constitution. The US Supreme Court in 1973 struck down a tuition tax plan in New York as breach of church-state separation. While supporters of the measure predict that they can produce a law that will win court approval, opponents call tuition tax credits a clear violati on of the First Amendment.