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Tuition tax-credit test

The doctrine of the separation of church and state faces another challenge this week. Voters in the Distict of Columbia will decide on a proposal to allow up to $1,200 a year in tax credits per pupil for educational expenses at private (and public) schools. The referendum will be important, coming at a time when champions of tuition tax credits are vigorously pushing their cause. President Reagan supports the idea in principle, and the Congress soon faces a debate on a tax-credit plan of its own.

It is to be hoped that the citizens of Washington will follow the good sense of voters in other parts of the country in rejecting this misguided concept. It is not merely a matter of money and the enormous loss of revenue such largess would represent for federal and local budgets. Deeper issues are at stake: upholding the First Amendment principle of keeping church and state separate, ensuring the viability of American public education, and fostering a climate of national unity.

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Parents who support tax credits point to the decline of many public schools and therefore the need to send their children to parochial or other private schools. Indeed it is hard not to sympathize with public school systems faced with such problems as drugs, vandalism, and lack of discipline, not to mention poor teaching and dilapidated physical plants. But it seems the height of inconsistency to undermine the public schools at the very time they need support and heightened community commitment. Arguing that tuition tax credits for private education would force the public schools to be more competitive strikes us as cynical and mean-spirited. With the flow of public revenues dwindling, how can the public schools hope to compete?

Every American citizen ought to ask: is a system of public schools crucial to the development of a vital, literate, democratic society? Surely it is. Public education in fact evolved historically when it was seen that religious and other private schools could not hope to meet the country's growing educational needs. Today public schools serve almost 90 percent of all school-age children and few would deny that, for all their current problems, they have served the nation well.

No one disputes the right of parents to send their children to nonpublic schools, for religious or other purposes. But just as citizens support police, firemen, roads, and other services which they may never personally use, so they support public schools as essential to the functioning of representative government. That is the price of living in a country of religious and political freedom, and it is a small price to say the least. Do Americans now want to encourage a flight into private schools -- promoting exclusivity and sectarianism and leaving the public schools to cope with the poor and disadvantaged? Former Justice William Brennan has written:

''It is implicit in the history and character of American public education that the public schools serve a uniquely public function: the training of American citizens in an atmosphere free of parochial, divisive, or separatist influence of any sort -- an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to all American groups and religions. This is a heritage neither theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic.''

Every citizen should want to help preserve that valued heritage. This is a time not for weakening the public schools -- but for rallying around them.

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