Dollars -- and sense -- vs. tuition tax credits

From the time of his election campaign President Reagan has supported federal tax aid to parochial and private schools. So it is not surprising that he has submitted tuition tax credit legislation and now follows up with a letter to a Senate committee strongly endorsing the bill. Although there is little likelihood the Congress will take action this session, Mr. Reagan can go to partisan voters this fall having fulfilled his campaign promise. One, however, which is ill-conceived.

What is disturbing about the current debate of tuition tax credits in the Congress is that it is focused on a secondary issue -- economics. Of course it cannot be overlooked that the measure would add to the federal budget deficit. By some estimates, allowing families to deduct a maximum of $500 per child for private-school expenses would cost taxpayers up to $2 billion annually by 1985. So it is not entirely illogical that Senator Danforth and others are questioning the economic wisdom of the bill.

They should not leave the impression, however, that the legislation is simply poorly timed and that the concept itself is worthwhile if it were not for the state of the economy. Deeper issues are involved, and the American people are disserved if these are not made central to the public debate.

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First and foremost is the constitutional issue. Some religious denominations are vigorously lobbying for federal and state aid. Such special aid appeals to many parents and sectarian groups worried about the erosion of religious influence and the secularization of society. Their concerns are not without foundation. But such devices as tuition tax credits and school prayer are not the way to go about invigorating the nation's religious life, for they bump up against the obstacle of violating the fundamental principle of separation of church and state.Inasmuch as that principle underlies and guarantees religious freedom in the United States, tampering with it entails high risks.

The US Supreme Court, at any rate, has thought so. It has consistently struck down laws directly or indirectly challenging that principle. Passage of a tuition tax credit bill would almost certainly lead to further judicial challenges, since 90 percent of private schools are church-related.

Then there is the important issue of public schools. By providing federal aid for private schools, the US government in effect would be signalling its lack of interest in strengthening public education.

How can such a posture be supported? When the vast majority of all schoolchildren go to public schools, when public schooling is vital to instilling civic, democratic values, and when the public schools today are struggling with financial and other difficulties? Instead of weakening public education, the federal government should be working with communities to bolster it.

Is this unfair to parents who choose to send their children to church or other independent schools? Not at all. They have freedom of choice, and in simultaneously supporting public education they are fulfilling a moral obligation to the community at large.

Would the tuition tax credit measure be unfair to parents with children in the public schools? Indeed it would.For these parents -- often the poorest -- would be subsidizing voluntary private education.

The lawmakers in Congress should have the political courage not to sidestep these basic matters.

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