Tax dollars for nonpublic schools?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Taxpayer dollars could soon ease the financial squeeze on parochial and other private schools in opposite ends of the nation.

Voters in California and Massachusetts will decide this fall whether to scale down provisions in their state constitutions that prohibit aid to these schools.

The Massachusetts measure, given final lawmaker approval June 21, would make it possible for either the state or local governments to provide financial assistance to pupils attending church-affiliated or other private educational institutions.

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California's proposal, similarly endorsed by both state lawmaking chambers earlier this year, would permit public funding of textbooks used in nonpublic schools.

While prospects for voter ratification of either are uncertain, their backers are guardedly optimistic. They maintain that every parent should have the right to decide how and where his or her children are educated. This, they say, is often impossible because they lack funds to pay tuition or buy textbooks for a nonpublic school.

Foes of the proposals, including teacher unions, some Protestant churches, and civil libertarians, view such moves as invasions of the separation of church and state and a threat to public school systems through possible loss of funding and enrollment.

Although textbook and other types of indirect aid to private education has been found permissible under the federal Constitution, strong anti-aid provisions in the California and Massachusetts constitutions prevail.

The Bay State's highest court, for example, six years ago held that a measure to provide such help to students, and thus indirectly to nonpublic institutions, was impossible under the strict language in the state's constitution.

Boosters of the pending change, including state Sen. Gerard D'Amico (D) of Worcester, note that its ratification would not provide a penny of relief to anyone. Rather it would remove the present constitutional barrier so lawmakers could offer assistance for those who attend a nonpublic school.

They note President Reagan's support for federal income tax deductions for tuition paid by parents and guardians of pupils enrolled in church-sponsored or other private schools.

Such an arrangement, involving either an initial exemption or reimbursement of at least a portion of nonpublic school expenses, is being discussed as a means of helping hard-pressed private and parochial schools meet rising operating costs.

Roman Catholic school administrators, in particular, have been quietly pushing to get rid of the anti-aid constitutional provision in Massachusetts.

Disappointed, but hardly surprise, by lawmaker approval of the state constitutional amendment, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, and other opponents are rallying forces to gain voter rejection.

Similar groups in California are preparing for their November ballot battle against a textbook funding measure.

Approval there would, in essence, reinstate a law in effect for several years nearly a decade ago before being struck down as violating the California constitution, which bans public funds for private education.

In invalidating the textbook aid statute, the state Supreme Court did not base its decision on the separation of church and state issue. Because of this, attorneys for the California Civil Liberties Union suggest that if the constitutional amendment prevails, a further state constitutional challenge can be expected.

Since 1946 the US Supreme Court, through a series of rulings, has upheld the use of public funds for reinbursement of transportation costs, loan of textbooks , provision of diagnostic services for handicapped, and provision of tests and record-keeping for the benefit of pupils attending nonpublic schools.

At least two states - Louisiana and Minnesota - now provide at least some measure of nonpublic school tuition aid, according to Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Foes of the two-year-old Minnesota statute, which allows up to $700 in state income tax deductions for a parent or guardian sending a child to a nonpublic school, have been trying to get it struck down. A federal appeals court in April upheld the measure. A further appeal to the US Supreme Court is being considered , says Matthew Stark, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.

Proposals to provide some measure of tuition aid for students in nonpublic schools have been rejected over the past 15 years - New York in 1967, Michigan and Nebraska in 1970, Idaho, Maryland, and Oregon in 1972, Maryland in 1974, Washington in 1975, Alaska and Missouri in 1976, Michigan in 1978, and Washington, D. C. in 1981.

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