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For Mr. Finn, the question is whether "a government that allows rich people to make choices in education should allow poor people to be denied those choices by virtue of their poverty." For the poor whose educational cause he would champion, the question might be more basic: whether a government that allows most people to eat very well should allow poor people to go hungry.

The challenge of our time is the shaping of a just society; the American conscience must deal with poverty in ways that will end its degrading spiral. The choice is not between food for the body or food for the soul; nor is the choice between public and private schooling. The choice is between a society in which the poorest citizens are deprived, not only of educational alternatives, but of food, clothing, and homes, or a society in which all citizens can live in dignity because their basic needs are satisfied.

Education is the key to creating a just society. This is an old--and unfortunately, in some quarters, worn-out--hope. But the educated person is more likely to find and hold a job, is more likely to take civic responsibility, is more likely to encourage his children in their own learning and growing experiences. And an educated person is more likely to be tolerant. It makes sense to support, with every available resource, a system that educates or tries to educate 90 percent of the people.

Tuition tax credits, while putting private school within the reach of more middle-class students, could deprive public education of needed tax dollars. The greater public good, in these Pentagon-boom, school lunch-bust days, is not served by taking money away from public education.

Mr. Finn states that tuition tax credits must "satisfy the concern that aid for non-public school students is not perceived to be aid to private education at the expense of public education." Perception or actuality, it is probable that the financing for a federal tuition-tax-credit system would come, not from the Pentagon's budget, but from the federal education budget.

Parents can't be faulted for wanting the best possible education for their children. The public-school system is flawed. But if the energy spent trying to escape public schools by means of tuition tax credits were turned full-force on the public monolith, there might be less reason to flee the neighborhood school. Determined citizens can work their will, even on a recalcitrant school-board member or principal.

Private school is a luxury, and it is worth remembering that the private school chooses its students, and not the other way round. The weakest part of Mr. Finn's argument calls for tuition tax credits as the means of "altering the [rich and white] composition of the private-school population." The private school is private on purpose. Such a school values and trades on its exclusivity and could be expected to try to maintain it, particularly if new and different people wanted to get in.

Mr. Finn declares, "Getting this issue behind us would be worth something." Voters in the District of Columbia certainly agreed on Election Day when they sank the $1,200 tuition-tax-credit proposal to the very bottom of Mr. Finn's silly local public-pool analogy.

Nancy Hartnagel Washington, D.C.

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