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'Choice' Measures Will Stimulate Competition, Argues E.D. Chief

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last week defended the Administration's push for tuition tax credits and education vouchers as a way to open the public schools' "virtual monopoly" to healthy competition.

Echoing President Reagan's speech earlier this month, which called for "greater parental choice," Mr. Bennett told members of the House Education and Labor Committee that tax credits and vouchers would "operate as competition to public schools, rather than allowing them to have the virtual monopoly they have now."

Rather than hurting the public- school system, he added, tax credits and vouchers could "provide a stimulant to improvement."

'Undercut System'

Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California and chairman of the committee, forcefully disagreed, saying such tax credits would "undercut the public-school system."

Mr. Bennett said, however, that if the Administration's proposals are enacted, no more than 25 to 30 percent of the student population would attend private schools. About 12.6 percent of all precollegiate students now attend nonpublic schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Providing parents with choice may improve the quality of that choice," the Secretary said.

Identical Bill

Mr. Bennett, appearing for the second time before the committee in a packed hearing room to defend the Administration's 1986 education budget, said a tuition tax-credit proposal, identical to the one proposed by the Administration last year, will be sent to the Congress in the next few weeks.

The bill, which was defeated in the Senate, would grant up to $300 per year in tax credits to parents whose children attend private schools. Parents with adjusted gross incomes of $40,000 or less would be eligible for the full credit, and those with incomes between $40,000 and $60,000 could receive partial credits. Parents with incomes of more than $60,000 would not be eligible for the credits.

According to a Treasury Department estimate cited by the Education Department, the tax credits would cost $359 million in the fiscal year 1986 and $886 million in fiscal 1990.

Voucher System

Mr. Bennett also spoke in favor of the Administration's Chapter 1 voucher proposal, which would authorize states to require school districts to provide educational services for disadvantaged students in the form of vouchers. Parents could use the vouchers at either public or private schools.

Representative Hawkins said the voucher system might "encourage the proliferation of parochial and fly-by-night schools of individuals willing to take advantage of vouchers."

"Who will control the excesses?" he asked.

Gary L. Bauer, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget, and evaluation, said the voucher system "would be subjected to the same sort of monitoring as any other federal program."

Families Without 'Choices'

Mr. Bauer argued that vouchers would help low-income families, because they are "overwhelmingly" the families that do not now have the ability to choose their children's schools.

Mr. Bennett spent about three hours testifying before the committee. Most of the questions directed at him involved proposed cuts in aid to college students. The Administration proposes to cut the financial-aid budget from $8.6 billion this year to $6.3 billion next year.

'Basic Inconsistency'

Representative Hawkins said he saw a basic "inconsistency" in the Administration's positions, "advocating choice for elementary and secondary education, but not for higher education."

But Mr. Bennett countered that "it is not our position that the government should allow choice at the secondary level no matter the cost of the choice." The Administration's first tax-credit bill capped assistance at $300, he pointed out.

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