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Cath. Leaders Urge Tax Credits for Public-School Families

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Washington--The leaders of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church have called on the Congress to include families of public-school children in tuition tax-credit legislation now pending in the Senate.

An official of the Reagan Administration said last week, however, that the Administration continued to support its version of the tax-credit legislation, which covers only families with children in private schools.

The 47-member administrative board of the U.S. Catholic Conference said, in a resolution adopted on Sept. 15, that the change it proposed would increase the likelihood that the Congress would approve the bill, and that the law would be upheld in any subsequent federal-court challenge.

The Council for American Private Education, which represents 80 percent of all elementary and secondary private schools, last month also endorsed the extension of tuition tax credits to public-school families.

A spokesman for the National Association of Independent Schools said last week that the organization opposes both approaches to tax-credit legislation. The nais board of directors will reconsider the issue at its November meeting, the spokesman said.

Officials for the Catholic Conference would not comment on whether they might undertake a lobbying effort to urge lawmakers to amend the Administration's bill, which has been approved by the Senate's Finance Committee and is awaiting further action. They said copies of the bishops' statement were sent to President Reagan and to all members of the Congress.

Officials of both organizations said their statements are attempts to bring the federal legislation into line with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Mueller v. Allen, which upheld a Minnesota practice of granting tax deductions for educational expenses to parents of both public- and private-school families. (See Education Week, July 27, 1983.)

"It can of course be argued that nothing in the Supreme Court's recent decision clearly requires that this be done," the Catholic Conference's statement said. "We nonetheless conclude that the legislation should in fact be revised to conform with ... Mueller."

Gary L. Bauer, deputy undersecretary for planning and budget in the Education Department, said the Administration still supports the bill passed by the Senate Finance Committee, which would allow private-school parents tax credits of $100 in 1983, $200 in 1984, and $300 thereafter, for each of their children enrolled in a private school. President Reagan has said he hopes the bill, S528, will come to a vote on the Senate floor this fall.

A spokesman for Sen. David Durenberger, Republican of Minnesota, said the Senator would attempt during the floor debate to add an amendment to the tax-credit bill to include public-school families.

Mr. Bauer said the Administration would watch Congressional developments "with interest," and "would be influenced" if Senate tax-credit supporters decided to include public-school parents in the program. But he said the inclusion of public-school families could increase pressure for "capping" the overall cost of tax credits because of the additional cost.

'A Ploy for Legal Support'

Joseph L. Conn of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an organization that opposes tuition tax credits, said the Catholic Conference's proposal was "a ploy to pick up legal support for the proposal." The resolution, he predicted, will not "add a single thing to the bill that will appeal to the public."

The cost of including public schools in tax-credit legislation is difficult to determine, both advocates and opponents of the concept said, because of uncertainty about what expenses public-school parents would be able to claim and how the availability of tax credits would influence families in their choice of schools.

Under the Minnesota law upheld in the Mueller decision, parents of public-school students are permitted to take tax deductions for the costs of transportation, nonreligious textbooks, laboratory equipment, and other supplies.

The Reagan Administration estimates that the $300 tax credit would cost the government $526 million at present private-school enrollment levels. But if 5 percent of the current public-school students sought places in private schools--as was predicted by the second report of the National Institute of Education's School Finance Project--that cost could dou-ble. (See Education Week, July 27, 1983.)

Senator Durenberger has said that including both public- and private-school families in a $100 tax-credit measure would cost about $4.6 billion annually.

Expanding the tax-credit plan, warned Albert J. Menendez of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, could wreak havoc on public-school finance systems. He said tax credits could encourage school districts to charge fees for goods and services that traditionally have been free. In many states, he said, this could lead to conflicts over state constitutional guarantees for a free public education.

Tax credits "could revolutionize the funding of public education," he said. "It could double or triple the [amount of revenue lost to the federal government]. Public schools are strapped, and they'd do anything to get money."

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