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Don’t Drain Public Schools

The White House and the Republican majority in Congress both talk about how much they want to improve education in the United States. But they have very different plans for doing it. President Clinton speaks of more teachers, more schools, more special programs and higher standards. Republicans would rather offer a small monetary reward to every parent who saves for educational expenses, including tuition for non-public elementary or high schools. The White House opposes this modest tax break because it would allow the use of federal funds to subsidize private and parochial schools. On this issue, Clinton is right.

Improving public education has become a top political priority from the District of Columbia, where public schools are in dismal shape, to Los Angeles, with its overwhelmed system and awful test scores. Washington should help address the yawning educational deficits in the nation’s public schools, but shifting even a small amount of tax money to private schools is not the answer--at least not yet.

Clinton isn’t personally against private schools; his daughter graduated from one last year. But rather than encourage an exodus from public schools at the expense of the taxpayer, he says he wants to fix the public schools to serve all children, including those whose parents cannot afford private or parochial school with or without a new education savings account.

Fixing the schools is a tall order, as residents of Los Angeles know all too well, and parents can never be blamed for wanting the best for their children. But most educators and employers would agree that the White House is right.

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The House of Representatives has approved a GOP bill that would create education savings accounts that work like individual retirement accounts for parents of students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Parents would be allowed to save as much as $2,000 a year in a special account. The interest would accrue tax-free, so long as the money was withdrawn only for education purposes, including books, computers, tutoring and, foremost, tuition. The Senate is expected to take up its version of the bill this week.

Though schools are traditionally a local responsibility, Washington has been increasingly willing to help. That help should be expanded, but care must be taken to avoid undermining public education. America’s great economic engine was built on public schools that took all comers--poor, working-class, middle-class and beyond--and that same mix remains essential for a healthy educational system.

Tax savings under the bill would, according to an analysis by the Joint Tax Commission, average a paltry $7 to $37 a year per family. But the principle is big.

This national private-versus-public debate boils down to a difference of priorities. Clinton’s ambitious wish list, unveiled during his State of the Union address, calls for spending $12 billion over seven years to pay for 100,000 new teachers, reducing class size to 18 students in the primary grades and creating 50 “education opportunity zones,” patterned after urban enterprise zones, in high-poverty areas, plus funding to help build new schools. Republicans favor initiatives that would allow more parents to remove their children from public schools.

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Neither side can expect to prevail while a Democrat sits in the White House and Republicans control Congress, but irreconcilable differences should not be allowed to lead to gridlock. Both sides agree that something needs to be done about public education.

Public schools, especially in cities, are in trouble. But there are promising reforms being tried, from a radical public school choice program in Seattle to a mayoral takeover in Chicago to L.A.'s focus on the 100 worst-performing schools. Playing on the frustration of parents in a way that undermines the whole system is not the cure.


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