Why we chose private schools

At President Reagan's behest, the US Senate has debated the issue of allowing taxpayers with children in private schools a credit of $100 per year, and the issue appears to have died with the Senate vote against the measure.

One wonders if the President hasn't played politics with our hopes for relief from the burden of educational expenses. He has honored the letter of his commitment, without putting any muscle behind the spirit of it.

But an important human issue lies behind the 59-38 vote in the Senate and this is an account of one family's getting backed into The Private School Solution.

Until we moved to the South, our children had attended public schools. Educationally, I am a Jeffersonian, believing that free public education for all is essential to a democracy. Yet public education grows unattractive in communities where it fails to compete with private schools for the best teachers and students.

Signing my first tuition contract, I felt I might be mortgaging my ideals as well as my solvency. My husband and I cringe at the thought of college, since private school tuitions have already played cowbird with our educational nest egg. No one ever foresees all the eventualities. When we moved to Durham, N.C., we found a housing market with a different set of rules. ''Buy location'' - the maxim we interpreted as ''Buy school district'' - had twice proved a sound principle for us. But in Durham, ''location'' was not so simple.

It would be easy to blame history: Durham is home to a large and diverse black population, with many black families having solid Durham status before their white neighbors' forebears got to America. Black Durham's professional and business achievement is a source of pride to the wider black community, and many blacks here and elsewhere send their children to private schools. Yet such cases are outnumbered by the large number of poor blacks, mostly living within Durham's city limits.

By 1980 even Durhamites not trying to sell a house were of one voice: ''The city schools? - forget it! If you want public schools, you have to buy in the county.'' But the tract-house trap and upscale have never been our thing. So much for location.

Our personal chain syllogism was forged. We bought a house - within the city near the university where we teach, feeling ambivalently fortunate to find (1) an appealing house; (2) within our budget; (3) in a faculty neighborhood; (4) within walking/biking distance of the university and shopping; (5) thereby obviating the need for a second car; (6) (read gas and maintenance); (7) so - assuming tuition doesn't go sky-high - (8) we think we can afford the best private school; (9) in the hope the kids will get a superior education. Schooling really casts a long, expensive shadow over the Sunbelt.

Reading of the congressional deliberations, I checked between the lines. A tax credit will not make the difference between starvation and food on the table at our house, but I question whether the amount of the credit would cover the direct and hidden federal aid.

Sen. Ernest Hollings's fear that such a tax credit would undermine the public school system is really a case of too little, too late. Already the parents most concerned about education send their children to private schools if it's at all possible. Public education too often means indifference, incompetence, nonaccountability, and faddism. Congress's refusal to give private school parents tax relief will not change their minds or their ways, and will not magically bolster public education.

I admit uneasiness over deciding to take our children out of the public education system. Yet I have a mother's questions: Must I send my children to a school where they need to plot for their bodily safety, and where dope-dogs routinely sniff lockers? Must my children (for the sake of my conscience) struggle to learn in a 9-to-3 prison, where teachers are wardens, and the curriculum is pap, Mickey Mouse, and daily survival? I am uneasy, but decided. If the double tax is the price, we will pay it.

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