Washington — Proposed federal tax credits for parents who send their children to private elementary and secondary schools are winning converts as more Americans lose confidence in the public schools.
It is a plan, agree proponents and opponents, that could drastically alter education in the United States.
Those who oppose tax credits for private (including parochial) school tuition probably still are in the majority -- 52 percent opposed to 34 percent in favor, according to a recent Gallup poll. But the supporters have been occupying the limelight since Ronald Reagan, a proponent of this kind of aid, was elected president.
Hovering over the debate is the question of separation of church and state. Supporters of the tuition tax credit tend to see US Supreme Court decisions on aid to church schools as inconclusive. In recent years the Supreme Court has struck down several plans, including one that included tuition tax credits.
Leo Pfeiffer, a constitutional lawyer who argued that case successfully in the high court, says that the present proposal, sponsored by Sens. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon and Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York, is "a direct contradiction of the Constitution."
President Reagan's advocacy is not the only new force behind aid to private an parochail schools. The Roman Catholic Church, for decades the major lobbyist for such aid, has been joined by a new, politically active religious lobby. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the fundamentalist Moral Majority, calls for refunding to parents up to $500 of private tuition costs. Thousands of fundamentalist Christian schools have sprung up across the land in recent years, and many parents who send their children to them want the tuition credit.
Even many of the old-line, elite private schools -- which long disdained federal aid on both economic and constitutional grounds -- now lobby for the credit, or at least do not oppose it.
Such supporters of federal aid to nonpublic schools now speak from a stronger position. Ten years ago parochial schools, with hat in hand, asked the federal government to bail them out in the face of dwindling enrollment and resources. Some Catholic schools closed, and their total enrollment dropped by 1 million during the last decade. But the outflow from parochial schools has reportedly stopped, and education forecasters predict a jump of 12 percent for all private school enrollment during the next five years.
"There is a private school lobby that is developing," says Arnold F. Fege, director of governmental relations for the national Parent-Teachers Association, a staunch opponent of tax credits. He adds that the private school supporters are more vocal right now than the longstanding public school lobby.
Other opponents explain that their side is quieter in part because the tax credit proposal will be delayed by President Reagan's effort to cut the federal deficit. Tuition tax credits would cost the US Treasury billions of dollars annually in lost revenue.
Although the administration gave its backing to the Packwood-Moynihan plan at a Senate subcommittee hearing recently, a Treasury official asked the senators to hold up a vote on tuition tax credits. The President wants to wait until his economic recovery plan is passed, an that could push the bill into the next year.
When the measure does reach a vote, it will at least have a fighting chance. Three years ago both the House and Senate approved different versions of tuition tax credits over objections from the Carter administration. The new President favors them.
The push for tuition tax credits is also winning over some people who are disillusioned with public schools. One of those is John Esty, a former school board members in Concord, Mass., an also a former private school principal. Mr. Esty, whose four children have attended public schools, now is president of the National Association of Independent Schools, a group of elite private institutions.
Esty says that three years ago he opposed tuition tax credits. Today he is changing his mind. His own school board term taught him the "almost scandalous degree to which public schools cannot be managed," Esty says. School board members are "harassed by threat of litigation, guidelines for state and federal grants, and teacher unions that are interested more in wages and benefits than in what is good for the kids."
Lower middle-class parents especially should have the choice of sending their children to nonpublic schools, Esty argues. He would prefer an income cutoff to exclude the wealthier parents that patronize his organization's prestigious academies.
Denis P. Doyle, a former US Office of Education official who now is with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, takes a similar stand. "There is a real crisis in confidence" in public schools, he says. "I think they do need [ the] competition" that "modest" tuition tax credits would provide.
Graham Down of the Council for Basic Education agrees that the tuition tax credit movement comes in part from sagging confidence in the public system. And he sharply criticizes schools for academic failure. But he says that tax credits are not the answer.
"I just don't think competition relates to the world of education," Mr. Down says. "We're not really making educational widgets."
The solution to the education lag is not tuition tax credits, argues Down, but reform of public schools. Some big city schools are highly successful, he points out. His recipe for improvement: pick principals on an academic basis, maintain an orderly atmosphere, develop teacher skills, stop diluting academics with courses such as driver and energy education, and involve parents.
Carl J. Dolce, dean of the school of education at North Carolina State University at Raleigh, another opponent of aid to private schools, says he's not ready to concede momentum to tax credit supporters. "It's ironic that from a public policy point of view we can talk of drastic cuts to public schools [about 25 percent in federal aid in 1982] and at the same time increase aid to nonpublic schools," he says.
"We're really grappling with the future of our society," says Mr. Dolce. The possible consequences of tuition tax credits are "so great" and so unknown, he asserts, that the issue requires much more study. He suggests that the poor minorities would be stranded in underfinanced public schools.
Many opponents of tuition aid see the program as writing the ticket for "white flight" out of the public schools, a contention that supporters of tax credits dispute.
The growth of fundamentalist Christian schools across the country has been attributed, in part, to flight from desegregation. The League of Women Voters points out that in Nashville, Tenn., private schools have mushroomed since court-ordered desegregation. Twenty percent of the city's children go to private schools, almost double the national rate.
Because these schools are not required to report to the federal governmen, it is difficult to know just how many there in the US are or how large the enrollment is.
Mr. Doyle, who ordered a study of nonpublic schools when he was a planning director at the Office of Education, guesses that the Christian schools enroll half a million pupils. And he doubts that their aim is segregation. "I would be leery of attributing purely invidious racism to the Christian schools," he says.
He also points out that Catholic schools in California have about the same percentage of minority students as public schools.
One undisputed factor is that the upsurge of fundamentalist Christian schools over the country has provided major impetus to the drive for t uition tax credits.