SHOULD taxpayer money be used for private schools?
That enduring conundrum underlies a tiff over moves in the Florida legislature to expand aid for residents who attend private colleges in the state.
The moves are aimed at increasing the educational options for students and prepare for the largest enrollment boom in Florida history, one that many say the public universities alone won't be able to handle.
While private colleges welcome the idea, it has ruffled a few robes among public university administrators, who argue that their campuses should come first for additional largess.
``It really comes down to how best can you deliver education,'' says Morris Marx, president of the University of West Florida in Pensacola. ``We are slightly underenrolled at the moment. We don't feel we need to subsidize'' people to go to private schools.
Florida is framing what may become a debate nationwide.
Some 34 states currently provide some sort of aid to private colleges. It ranges from funds for capital improvements to assistance for student tuition.
In an era of tight finances, states are looking for ways to meet the higher education needs of students without taxing public treasuries. Subsidizing those who go to private schools is one idea being looked at - particularly in states facing booming enrollments - because some see it as a cheaper alternative to building new campuses or shoehorning more into public university classrooms.
``There are states taking a new look at these issues because the resources just aren't there,'' says Tim McDonough of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 820 private schools across the United States.
Resistance against aid for students attending private colleges was broken in Florida a long time ago.
In the late 1970s, the state began a tuition-assistance program for each resident attending private colleges - including religious ones, provided they don't require students to be of a certain religious denomination. The money goes directly to the student's school.
The push now to expand the program is part of a broader legislative package aimed at coping with an expected boom in college enrollment and increasing the number of high school seniors who go directly to four-year colleges or universities.
The state's nine public campuses, catering to more than 190,000 students, have room for only 15 percent of high school graduates - one of the lowest rates in the country. The goal is to increase that to 20 percent over the next five years.
The pressures will only grow. The number of high school graduates in the state is expected to increase by 55 percent - or 50,000 students - over the next 15 years. The state plans to add a 10th university to the system, though it won't open until about 1997.
Many students like the idea of getting more aid, which is expected to pass this legislative session, but it still would only go so far for many students.
Tuition and other student fees at the University of Florida this year total $1,700. The tab at the private University of Miami: $16,000.
Backers of more private tuition assistance argue it is an economic way to expand the capacity of the system and to give students a greater choice.
The current tuition grant program gives students who attend a private college from $900 to $1,200 a year. Under the new legislation, that amount is expected to rise several hundred dollars over the next few years.
Private colleges, some of which have seen enrollments drop because of recession, laud the idea. But they also want more consistency in the amount the state gives.
``Everybody wants to focus on how much money there will be,'' says T.K. Wetherell, president of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, a group which represents private schools in the state. ``The key question to us is stability. Is the money going to be there?''
He estimates the state's 23 private schools could absorb another 35,000 students. The state's Board of Regents supports expanding the tuition grant program as well.
Not so enamored are some of those the Regents oversee. University of Florida (Gainesville) President John Lombardi has decried taking more public funds and giving them to ``elitist, private schools'' that aren't as accountable as public institutions.
Dr. Marx says it is appropriate to subsidize students to go to private colleges for specialized programs that may be too expensive for public universities to develop. But most disciplines can be handled at the public schools, he argues, and the aid should go there first. He says the public system can handle the expected enrollment surge.