Two years ago Massachusetts voters soundly rejected a proposed amendment that would have weakened the state's strong consitutional provision against state aid to nonpublic schools. Now the president of the state Senate is pushing another amendment that would permit indirect funding of private and parochial schools. A state constitutional amendment being pushed by Senate President William M. Bulger (D) of Boston could have a devastating impact on the Massachusetts public school system.
It would enable the commonwealth or its cities and towns to -- indirectly, at least -- help bankroll nonpublic schools.
The measure cleared its first big hurdle in the waning days of the 1984 legislative session when a joint session of the Massachusetts House and Senate gave it initial approval, 108 to 68. If given similar approval again this year, it would appear on the 1986 state ballot.
A similar proposal, which would have permitted some direct aid to nonpublic schools, was rejected by a margin of more than 3 to 2 in 1982. The new amendment would provide aid indirectly, through a voucher system.
Parents or legal guardians of pupils could use government allowances or tax credits to defray partly, if not fully, tuition paid to private or parochial schools.
THe exact arrangement for such assistance would be determined by the legislature. State lawmakers would decide, from time to time, both the type and amount of any such aid.
While it is questionable whether the commonwealth or its municipalities could afford full tuition funding for pupils wishing to attend nonpublic schools, the availability of even partial assistance almost certainly would induce a lot more parents to seek private education for their children.
This might substantially deplete the ranks of pupils in public school throughout Massachusetts. In the process, many of the best students might desert the public schools, leaving behind a preponderence of poorly motivated and disadvantaged pupils, not to speak of empty classrooms.
Scores, maybe even hundreds, of tenured teachers in public elementary and secondary schools could find themselves faced with the necessity to change careers or compete for whatever available jobs there might be in various church-run or other private schools.
Of course, it is the right of parents, as it always has been, to provide the best possible education for their children, whether that be in a public or nonpublic school. But those choosing the private education route over what is available free, through taxpayer dollars, must come up with the tuition and other expenses on their own.
Although many private schools offer quality education, in some cases superior to what is provided in many public schools, this certainly is not always the case, and indeed need never be.
Even if the level of education in public schools were generally inferior to that available elsewhere, that is no justification for asking taxpayers to help pay for what amounts to an alternative, but not necessarily better, school setup. Yet that is what passage of the proposed state constitutional amendment obviously must well lead to.
Public schools could find themselves forced to compete for taxpayer dollars with an aid program for private and parochial schools. State lawmakers, including many of the 108 senators and representatives who so enthusiastically voted for the private-school aid measure, thus could someday wind up caught in the middle between those demanding money for better public schools and others who have lost interest in the public system because the state has subsidized their children's enrollment in private schools.
The Massachusetts constitution shields legislators or local officials from having to say ``no'' to those seeking even backdoor public funding of nonpublic schools. Article 46, Section 2 of the commonwealth's basic document is considered by legal scholars as the strongest barrier to private school aid in the nation -- even more stringent than that in the US constitution. It specifies:
``All monies raised by taxation in the towns and cities for the purpose of public schools, and all monies which may be appropriated by the commonwealth for the support of common schools, shall be applied to, and expended in, no other schools than those which are conducted, according to law, under the order and superintendence of the authorities of the town or city in which the money is expended, and no grant approriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized by the commonwealth or any political division thereof for the purpose of founding, maintaining, or aiding any school or institution of learning, whether under public control or otherwise . . . wherein any denominational doctrine is inculcated, or any other school, or any college infirmary, hospital, institution, or educational, charitable, or religious undertaking which is not publicly owned and under the exclusive control, order, and superintendence of public officers or public agents authorized by the commonwealth or federal authority or both . . . ; and no such grant, or appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of public credit shall be made or authorized for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any church, religious denomination, or society.''
In place of this language, boosters of the proposed state constitutional change would state: ``This amendment shall not be construed to prevent the commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions from providing aid, materials, or services to a pupil in a private school which does not discriminate in its entrance requirements on the basis or race or color. . . .''
This aid would be possible if ``the individual pupil requests the same; and provided further that the General Court [legislature] shall have full power to impose conditions or restrictions upon the furnishing of said aid materials or services.''
Backers of the proposed amendment contend that times have changed and that, even though church-run schools would qualify for at least indirect public funding aid, it would not amount to violation of the US Constitution's guarantee of separation of church and state. They cite the strong support of President Reagan for tax breaks for parents of pupils in private and parochial schools.
Critics of the proposal contend that any funds allotted to help ease the financial burden on nonpublic schools would be better used to improve public schools, especially in the state's poorer communities.
Despite the fact that in November 1982 Massachusetts voters rejected a private-school aid proposal on a 1,160,130 to 708,034 vote, and despite visible evidence that public sentiment on the matter has changed appreciably, Senator Bulger and others in the legislature are dedicated to passage of the proposed amendment.
They are almost certain to push for a second vote in a joint legislative constitutional convention in the spring. By then it may be apparent whether there is anything approaching even a small groundswell of support for this fundamental, and dangerous, change in the state's historic support for public schools and determination to uphold separation of church and state.