Virtual Vouchers?

It may be getting tougher to hold the line against efforts to provide public backing for private elementary and secondary schooling. The reasons for holding that line are twofold: (1) to avoid an erosion of support for public education, even as persistent reform efforts are beginning to pay off in higher test scores, and (2) to avoid entangling public authority and parochial education.

When proposals are put forward as voucher systems, drawing directly on public funds, Americans typically reject them. Four years ago 70 percent of California's voters turned down such a scheme. More recently, 65 percent of Washington State's voters did the same. A number of voucher plans are still before Congress.

But public aid for private education increasingly takes subtler forms, such as tuition tax credits, or the education savings accounts favored by many congressional Republicans and a fair number of Democrats. These accounts would allow tax-free accumulation of interest on money that could be used for any legitimate educational purpose - and at any level, not just college as under current law.

Sounds innocent enough. But where does it lead? It's a small step toward positioning government behind private - most often church-related - elementary and secondary education. It's a step that won't be taken any time soon, because of President Clinton's veto. But its proponents aren't about to give up.

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