Washington--President Bush, countering a longstanding Republican Party plank and an often-touted position of his predecessor, said last week that he does not favor tuition tax credits for people who send their children to private schools.
“We can’t afford to do that,” Mr. Bush said of government support for private-school parents. “It is the obligation of all taxpayers to support a public-education system. We want it to be the best.”
The President made the remarks March 29 during a question-and-answer session with 75 high-school students visiting the White House. Asked by a private-school student whether his parents should receive a tax break because they also support public schools, Mr. Bush responded, “No, they shouldn’t.”
“I’ve been intrigued with the concept of tuition tax credits,” the President continued. “And some say, well, should that include parochial schools? And I’ve said, yes, but the problem again is that we can’t afford to do that.”
“So I think that everybody should support the public-school system,’' he said. “And then, 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 National pta called Mr. Bush’s remarks “a significant step forward for the nation’s public schools,” while the National Education Association said they were “a welcome change from the previous Administration’s rhetoric.”
But a White House spokesman, Steve Hart, insisted that the President “continues to support the concept of tuition tax credits, but feels that we can’t afford it.”
President Reagan was a staunch supporter of tuition tax credits, and the 1988 Republican Party platform affirmed the party’s support for them.
Catholic educators, whose schools would stand to benefit the most from tuition tax credits, expressed dismay at Mr. Bush’s statement.
Brother Peter Pontolillo, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese of San Antonio, said that Mr. Bush’s comment was “60 years behind the times, and it flies in the face of the Republican Party platform on which he was just elected.”
The budget deficit is just an excuse, he said. “The real issue is one of justice and fairness to taxpayers to allow them to use their tax money the way they would choose to educate their children.”
Mr. Bush has a “Kennebunkport perspective,” said Michael J. Guerra, executive director of the secondary-school department of the National Catholic Educational Association. “People who go to Phillips Exeter can afford to pay for it [private education].”
“What is at risk are those sectors of private education, including much of Catholic education, that are serving parents of modest means,” Mr. Guerra said. “We thought we had made the case with President Bush, but apparently we have slipped.”
“Apparently, he has decided he is not going to be the education President,” Mr. Guerra added. “He’s go4ing to be the public-education President.”
Although the President’s remarks appeared to mark a clear departure from Mr. Reagan’s outspoken stance in favor of tuition tax credits, observers last week found the turn of events not entirely surprising.
At the White House Workshop on Choice in Education in January, for example, Mr. Bush made no mention of private schools when he affirmed his support for expanding parents’ right to choose which public schools their children would attend.
“It’s an idea whose time has come and passed, or not come at all,” said Denis Doyle, a senior research fellow with the Hudson Institute, of providing the private-school choice option. “Reagan tried heroically and it’s been a bipartisan issue. But I just don’t think it’s an issue that’s going to make very much difference either way.”
Bob Smith, executive director of the Council for American Private Education, which supports the concept of tuition tax credits, said he agreed with Mr. Bush’s assessment of the cost of such a program.
“It certainly would be difficult to pass a tuition-tax-credit bill at this point,” Mr. Smith said, “given the tightness of the budget and the tre8mendous need for human services across the board, child care being a new and big one.”
In the early 1980’s, President Reagan pushed tuition tax credits as a way to help families bearing the cost of both public and private schools. After the tax-credit legislation was defeated repeatedly in the Congress, the Reagan Administration turned to the concept of vouchers that parents of educationally disadvantaged children could use at the public or private school of their choice. But the Chapter 1 voucher plan also was turned back on Capitol Hill.
President Bush, who has repeatedly said he wants to be known as “the education President,” held several meetings with students last week as a prelude to formally presenting his education proposals to the Congress this week.
The legislative package would authorize the appropriation of $441 million for a “Merit Schools” program, awards for outstanding teachers, a science-scholarship program, an alternative-certification initiative, and a new magnet-schools program. The package is not expected to contain any initiatives not included in Mr. Bush’s Feb. 9 adddress to a joint session of the Congress.
Staff Writer Mark Walsh contributed to this report.