The tuition tax credit revival

Americans have been given fair warning that the push for tuition tax credits continues -- and with calculations of greater success than in the past. No time should be lost in resisting the momentum that has built up since 1978 when Congress last denied these tax breaks for parents who choose to send their children to parochial or other private schools. Both the congressional arithmetic and the administration attitude have changed in favor of such breaks. The delay in legislative action requested by President Reagan ought to be used by opponents to expose the fallacies of the scheme.

The delay would be in the interest of priority attention to Mr. Reagan's economic package. It signals no retreat from his support of tuition tax credits. Indeed, last week he became the first President to send his chief education official to testify for the concept on Capitol Hill.

This was Secretary of Education Terrel Bell, who has expressed "unequivocal" support for the tax credits. He recognizes the problem of getting court acceptance of funding parochial schools under the First Amendment, but he believes it is not insurmountable. The public might be forgiven for hearing a clash of Bells. For it was Attorney General Griffin Bell who, in 1978, concluded that credits for primary and secondary school pupils would be held unconstitutional, though those for college students would survive.

The current bill in the Senate Finance Committee proposes credits for parents of students in private elementary or secondary schools and in private or public colleges or vocational schools. Coverage would later be extended to graduate and half-time students. The deduction from parental income taxes for each student would be up to $250 a year at first, rising to $500 in the second year and to who knows what after that. The Treasury Department estimates revenue losses -- to be made up by other taxpayers -- of $2.7 billion the first year, mounting to $6.8 billion in 1986.

Among issues to be discussed no doubt will be whether parents who do not pay taxes would receive payments in lieu of credits, and whether the credits should be applied to public as well as private schools all along the line. The latter has been broached as possibly easing the church-state obstacle and the negative impact on public schools of favored treatment for private school parents.

But there are really no palliatives to make these tax breaks acceptable. Apart from the basic First Amendment argument -- and others previously discussed in these pages -- this is a particularly poor time to undermine the public schools. They are under such stress that they should get increased citizen support rather than the decreased support abetted by tuition tax credits.

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