Washington--President Bush last week told evangelical Christian leaders that--despite his recent statement that the federal government could not afford the idea--he continues to favor tuition tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools.
Mr. Bush sought to reassure the group of about 20 conservative Protestants that he had not veered from the long-standing support of tuition tax credits expressed by former President Reagan and the Republican Party platform, according to participants at the April 18 meeting.
“I asked the President directly whether he had changed” his stance on the tax-credit issue, said Robert P. Dugan Jr., public-affairs director of the National Association of Evangelicals. “He assured us he had not. He said he still believed in the principle, but it wasn’t economically feasible right now.”
The White House meeting followed a wave of protests from private-school educators and others about Mr. Bush’s March 29 remarks, in which he told a group of high-school students that he does not currently support tuition tax credits.
Asked by a private-school student whether his parents should receive a tax break because they also support public schools, Mr. Bush replied, “No, they shouldn’t.”
Everyone “should support the public-school system,” the President said. “If on top of that, your parents think that they want to shell out, in addition to the tax money, tuition money, that’s their right and that should be respected. But I don’t think they should get a break for that.”
The statement quickly drew praise from such opponents of tuition tax credits as the National PTA and the National Education Association. But supporters of the idea questioned whether the President was reneging on a campaign commitment.
Mr. Bush’s statements have been “understood to be a rejection of the concept of tuition tax credits,” Mr. Dugan wrote in a letter requesting the meeting for evangelical leaders. “It pains us deeply to see the National Education Association crowing over your remarks as a ‘welcome change’ from the dark ages of the Reagan Administration.”
White House officials insisted last week that Mr. Bush’s comments had been widely misinterpreted.
“He supports the idea of tuition tax credits, but in this time of fiscal constraint, he feels we can’t afford it,” said a deputy press secretary for Mr. Bush. “The confusion came when people attempted to read into his answer what they wanted to hear.”
The day after the session with the high-school students, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, suggested that there was “confusion” because of the manner in which the student had posed his question.
“The way the question was raised was: Why should my parents have to pay to support public schools when they’re paying for me to go to private schools? And it has always been the President’s position, and the last Administration’s position, that everybody should pay for public schools and how you treat private schools is on top of that,” Mr. Fitzwater said.
Mr. Dugan seemed satisfied with the President’s explanation of his earlier remarks. “I think he simply gave an inadequate answer to a student’s question,” he observed.
But Mr. Dugan conceded that budgetary constraints would continue to be a formidable obstacle to any tax-credit proposal, even with Mr. Bush’s reaffirmed backing.
“We would hope he is sincere,” said Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association. Sister McNamee recently sent a letter to Mr. Bush inviting him to visit a Catholic school. “We want to stress the point that the majority of Catholic schools serve middle- to lower-class students, and that they are not elitist schools,” she said.