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Racial-Bias Issue Stalls Senate Action On Reagan's Tuition

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Washington--The Reagan Administration's tuition tax-credit bill, which has been stalled in the Senate Finance Committee because of concerns about its limited anti-discrimination provisions, has become the focus of new disagreements between supporters of the bill and Administration officials.

The arguments revolve around the powers of the Internal Revenue Service (irs) to investigate the practices of private schools.

Meanwhile, opponents of the bill have circulated a report that says enactment of a tuition tax-credit measure, coupled with cuts in the federal education budget, could result in three times more federal aid being spent on the education of private-school students than on public-school students.

As the Finance Committee prepares to resume work on the bill when Congress returns from its recess next week, one Senator said he intends to introduce amendments that would permit the irs to audit schools suspected of discriminating against students on the basis of race and to disallow tax credits for tuition to schools that are found to be discriminatory.

Senator William Bradley, the New Jersey Democrat who sits on the committee, said at a recent news conference that permitting the irs to enforce the anti-discrimination provisions was "essential to the legislation."

"At some point there's going to have to be a choice made [by the President]," he said. "Are there strong anti-discrimination provisions in the bill, with irs oversight, or are there not?"

The Administration's version of the bill would permit investigations of private schools only by the Justice Department.

Administration officials have been involved in discussions with other members of the Finance Committee, in an effort to convince the Senators that action by the U.S. Attorney General on complaints filed against discriminatory schools is sufficient to ensure that tuition tax credits do not promote racial discrimination, according to committee sources. (See Education Week, Aug. 18, 1982.)

Dilemma for Administration

The situation has created a dilemma for the Reagan Administration, because of its stance in favor of limiting the powers of the irs over private schools.

The President took that position last January, after a lobbying campaign by the New Right apparently encouraged the Administration to attempt to revoke the power of the irs to investigate private schools prior to granting them tax-exempt status.

Those same conservative lobbying groups--among them, the Moral Majority, the National Pro-Family Coalition, and the Conservative Caucus--have warned the President that they will work against Congressional passage of tuition tax credits "if there are not sufficient safeguards against irs harassment."

Senator Bradley said he would be satisfied that the Administration intended to ensure nondiscrimination only if both the irs and the Justice Department could enforce the anti-discrimination provisions of the bill. He claimed to have gathered sufficient support among Finance Committee members to ensure passage of his amendments.

But two other Finance Committee members who have questioned the Administration's intentions said through spokesmen last week that they were undecided about whether to support Senator Bradley's amendments. Republican Senator Robert Packwood of Oregon "is mainly concerned about the effect--that no racial discrimination will occur," said John O. Colvin, a member of the Senator's staff.

"We're waiting to see what kind of compromise [with the Administration] is worked out," said James Moors, an aide to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, Democrat of New York. "The Senator wants a bill that is ironclad sure on civil-rights provisions."

Although the committee has not set a date for further consideration of the bill, Senator Ernest F. Hollings, Democrat of South Carolina, has launched a campaign in conjunction with public-school lobbying groups to defeat the tuition tax-credit legislation when it comes to the Senate floor.

At a recent press conference, the Senator released a study showing the extent to which tuition tax credits would harm public schools in 65 of the nation's largest urban areas. Information for the study was gathered from public-school officials in the cities surveyed.

Prepared by the Council of the Great City Schools and the American Association of School Administrators (aasa), the study assumed that a tax credit of up to $500 per child would be available to parents in the 1984-85 school year--a provision contained in the Administration's bill.

The study also assumed that Congress would enact the Administration's proposed reductions in the Education Department budget, which would cut funding from approximately $14.3 billion in the current school year, to approximately $9.95 billion by the 1984-85 school year.

Based on those projections, according to the study, federal education aid to public-school students in 65 cities would decrease to $105 per child, at the same time that private-school parents would receive an average federal tax credit for tuition of $329 per child.

Gary L. Jones, acting undersecretary of education, criticized the study because it compared aid to public schools with tax credits paid to parents of private-school students.

"I will not accept as valid the argument that money for tuition tax credits that goes to the pockets of parents is the same as money that goes to support the public schools. Tuition tax credits provide equity to parents who pay taxes to support the public schools," he said.

Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the aasa and one of the authors of the study, responded that "the tax credit is something the government gives to encourage a certain kind of behavior, and that behavior will hurt the public schools."

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