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Tuition wisdom

The proposal to offer a tuition tax credit to Americans who enroll their children in parochial or other private schools is a poor idea. The Senate was wise to defeat it by tabling it, despite lobbying from President Reagan. Like many other issues Congress considers in the waning days of a session, this proposal has substantial political overtones.

The idea's most serious flaw is that it would breach the doctrine of separation of church and state, to which, wisely, the United States has generally hewn since its founding. The majority of children who would use tax credits would be attending Roman Catholic parochial schools.

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Ironically, opponents of the measure may have been rallied by a decision earlier this year by the US Supreme Court: It held legal a Minnesota law that provides partial tax deductions for educational expenses on grounds that similar deductions are also offered, at least in theory, to parents of public school students.

In the wake of this court ruling, backers of strict church-state separation had vowed to increase their efforts to defeat similar measures, such as the one the Senate considered Wednesday.

Tax credits also would be financially costly to the federal government. At a time when the annual federal deficit is approximately $200 billion, tuition tax credits would take from Uncle Sam between $1.5 billion and $2.5 billion in taxes over the first three years they were in operation.

Finally, America's troubled urban schools need more support, not less. If a tuition tax credit proposal were to become law, the public schools would lose the presence of many highly motivated children and their parents. Public schools need both.

The measure proposed this year would give allowed taxpayers to deduct half the cost of tuition paid to parochial or private elementary or secondary schools , eventually to a maximum of $300 a year.

No one should feel smug about this year's defeat of the tax-credit plan: The idea has plenty of supporters, who can be expected to keep trying. Vigilance is needed against this unwise idea.

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