US pablic elementary and secondary schools need public support -- possibly more urgently today than they have for the past 10 years. City and town public schools systems, particularly in the East and South, have always had their competitors. As many as half the school-age children in cities like Buffalo; Boston; Providence, R.I.; Memphis; New Orleans; and Mobile, Ala., dont't attentd local public schools, but go to a host of nonpubli schools, with the majority enrolled in church-run of church-related schools.
Private, independent schools, wile they do enjoy a great deal of publicity and attention, actually enroll a very small portion of the school-age children in any given community, and nationwide are estimated to enroll less than 3 percent of all pupils.
It is the parochial school movement that enrolls the majority of nonpublic schoolchildren, With Roman Catholic schools having the largest nationwide enrollment and fundemantalist Christian schools naw coming along quickly, particularly in the Western states, which have traditionally had up to 90 or 95 percent of all school-age children in the public school system.
Free public schooling for every child, regardless of circumstance of birth or geographical location, is a fundamental principle of our democracy. So is the right of parents to seek (and purchase) appropriate schooling for their children outside the public system.
But this editor has consistently held that this choice is an individual citizen's right, and not the responsibility of the public at large.
I have never favored -- and do not now -- the expenditure of public funds for nonpublic schools, whether they be private and independent, or private and church-related.
For some years, when public schools were enjoying strong public support and apparently achieving student success, one argument given for the use of public funds to help parochial schools was based on the threat that should these nonpublic schools close and all those children be "dumped" on the public system, the cost would be prohibitive; this, during a time when the public system was hard pressed to keep up with new enrollees from the baby boom.
Hence, the notion was persistently put forward that a little money given to nonpublic shcools for transportation, books, equipment, and lunches was better than a lot of money should the parochial shcools be forced to close.
Now the situation is reversed. Many public schools are closing because of a lack of pupils, so a new argument has it that many fine nonpublic schools will have to close because costs are too high, and that this would be too bad, as the nonpublic schools do a better job than the public schools; therefore, some way should be found to direct public funds to nonpublic schools.
Two new proposals for helping to finance nonpublic schools are now enjoying considerable attention. One is vouchers; the other, tuition tax credits.
In a voucher system, all tax money allocated for school-age children would be given to the student (and their parents) to spend wherever they wished, whether in a town-run or some type of privately run school.
It's a system that would almost guarantee the end of free public schools. Instead, there might be some schools run by town or city employees, teaching certain classes or types of children for which no private institution was available. But providing funds but not schools from tax dollars would not, as voucher proponents allege, produce two side-by-side school systems -- one public and one nonpublic.
As in rural New England, when a town has no public secondary school, the schoolage children take their "vouchers" and pay to attend the school of their choice.
The tuition tax credit plan is a little more roundabout. Here parents would be allowed income tax credits for the amounts paid in tuition to a nonpublic school. This would cushion what the Roman Catholic Church has long argued was "double taxation," whereby parents have paid their municipal taxes to support the public shcools and then tuition (a so-called archdiocese tax) so that their children could attend a parochial school.
But whatever the method -- direct grants, paying for some services, divvying up the public purse, or tax credits -- each aids nonpublic schooling at the expense of the public school system.
If there are problems with the quality of the teaching in the public schools -- and there appear to be serious problems -- and if there are behavior problems and truancy is at epidemic strenght, the solution is not public funding of nonpublic schools, but more intelligent running (and greater support for) the public schools.
I think the need is clear: full public support of public schools and private support of nonpublic schools.
No vouchers, no tuition tax credits, no service payments, no grants -- at least not with public funds.