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E.D. Officials Argue for Tax Credits, Vouchers Before Gathering of Skeptical P.T.A. Members

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Washington--Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Jones faced a difficult challenge last week.

He and three other Education Department officials were invited to the National Congress of Parents and Teachers' (pta) annual legislative conference here to convince the organization's members that President Reagan's tuition tax-credit and education-voucher proposals would not debilitate public education.

Mr. Jones argued that the tax-credit and voucher proposals would place education decision making "back where it belongs," in the hands of parents and locally elected officials. But one of the pta members responded: "Here you have people representing five million parents nationwide and we agree with you when you say that we know best. And we're telling you that we don't like it."

The department official's presentation was one of the highlights of the conference, which brought more than 200 pta members here for four days to learn about the federal education budget and to use that knowledge during their visits to congressmen and senators to lobby in support of the association's positions.

Defeat of Proposals

According to Mary Ann Leveridge, president of the National pta, the association's top legislative priorities this year are the defeat of the President's tax-credit and voucher proposals.

Under the first proposal, a version of which was introduced in the Con-gress last year but was never voted on, the parents of private-school pupils would be eligible to obtain federal income-tax credits of up to $300 by the fiscal year 1985 for each of their children in private schools. Parents with incomes no greater than $40,000 annually would be eligible for the maximum credit, and those with incomes up to $60,000 would receive a partial credit.

Under the second proposal, which federal education officials say they are still working on, local school boards would be given the option of converting their Chapter 1 program for educationally disadvantaged children into a voucher program. The federal officials said that parents would be given a voucher totalling approximately $525, which they could use to send their children to the private or public school of their choice.

"The President, as last year, seems committed to the passage of tuition tax credits, and the recent proposal on the Chapter 1 vouchers has us quite concerned," Ms. Leveridge said in an interview last week.

"The voucher plan seems a bit far-fetched, but you have to take it seriously because if it is enacted it would create absolute chaos in the public schools," she added.

Mr. Jones, who spent most of his time arguing on behalf of the voucher proposal, strongly opposed that type of characterization of the plan.

"I don't think that the voucher plan is radical at all," he said. ''Last year, a department task force advocated turning the entire Chapter 1 program into a voucher program, and I didn't think that was right. But neither do I think it right for the federal government to tell people that a categorical program is the best way to educate disadvantaged children. All we are advocating is that parents and school boards should have a choice in the matter."

Cautioned not to 'Prejudge'

Mr. Jones also cautioned the pta members not to "prejudge" the voucher plan. "I'm a parent too," he told the group, "and I can tell you that I'm for them, and I will continue to fight for them. I can also tell you that there are a lot of other parents out there like me who like vouchers and who don't like someone telling them that 'Your kids have to go to this school and they can't go to the school that you want them to whether you like it or not."'

Monika Harrison, director of policy planning and executive operations in the department's office of elementary education, added that the department "gets an awful lot of letters from parents saying that their concerns could be best addressed by a voucher system."

Ms. Leveridge, in an interview conducted before Ms. Harrison's presentation, said that "the letters argument" carried no weight.

"The Administration likes to ballyhoo letters that it receives when it talks about tax credits and vouchers," she said. "Most of those letters are being written by children in private schools on school time. This organization doesn't use children like that. We believe it's not right to enlist children in this cause because they don't understand what is at issue. But if we did, I think you can imagine the load of letters that the department would receive."

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