GOP pushes tuition measure Senate bill would allow tax-deferred savings for education

March 24, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seeking an election-year agenda on education, Republicans are pushing a bill that would allow parents to set aside money in tax-deferred college savings accounts for elementary and secondary school costs, including private school tuition.

A key procedural vote is set for today on the Senate measure, which would allow parents to deposit money for tuition, books, tutors and other expenses and shield the income it generates from taxes. If the legislation can surmount that hurdle, political observers say, it has a good chance of gaining congressional approval, although President Clinton is likely to veto it.

Both sides acknowledge that the importance of the tuition proposal is largely symbolic. The measure, expected to cost $1.6 billion over 10 years, is contained in a larger package and has secured the support of a scattering of centrist Democrats. The proposal would save families $37 a year for each child in a private school and $7 for one in public school, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.

But the modest scope of the proposal has failed to still arguments over its virtues.

Republican supporters say the plan would be a good first step toward giving families choices for their children's schooling.

"The Democrats of the Senate and the president are resisting this legislation for reasons that are not clear to me," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi said yesterday. "We need to do more in education to allow people to be able to save for their children."

But some in the Senate, including the chief Democratic sponsor of the largely Republican measure, say the bill is driven by election-year pressure to deal with education concerns.

"This is a partisan competition," said Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a .. New Jersey Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican. "Education has traditionally been the province of Democrats. The Republicans are taking their first stand when it comes to education."

'A philosophical debate'

The size of the benefit would be limited by the amount families put into the accounts and how quickly they withdraw it.

"The average benefit is very small," acknowledged a Republican congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is really a philosophical debate, about whether or not you can get a tax benefit at all to pay for private education."

Clinton, Democratic allies in the Senate and leaders of teachers unions say the Coverdell-Torricelli bill is a gimmick that would further erode support for taxpayer investment in public schools.

"It's a tax break for the wealthy in the guise of an education bill. This is money that should be going for public education and not for a tax break," said Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

At a Capitol Hill rally yesterday, several Democratic stalwarts were cheered by more than 100 schoolteachers as they denigrated the bill, which they said was a short step from publicly funded vouchers to pay tuition at private and parochial schools.

The Coverdell bill "is just a disguise for a voucher program," said Sen. John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat, who was joined by Education Secretary Richard W. Riley and Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Charles S. Robb of Virginia. "It takes scarce federal dollars away from the uses it should be put to."

The Coverdell-Torricelli bill would allow parents to use money in education savings accounts for private school tuition or to pay for computers, books, student activities and other school-related costs, and expand the amount that could be set aside for each student, to $2,000 from $500 each year. The House passed a similar measure last fall. Money from those tax-sheltered accounts can now be spent only on college costs or other post-secondary training.

Of the 35 million U.S. households with a student in a public school, an estimated 10.8 million would use the tax break; 2.4 million of the 2.9 million families with children in private and parochial schools would do so. Eligibility would be phased out for high-income families.

Because the accounts set aside money before it passes through the Treasury, there would be no explicit violation of the separation of church and state, several activists for liberal groups conceded. But they said the spirit of the law resembles public sponsorship of religious schools.

The Rev. William F. Davis, the representative of Roman Catholic schools and federal assistance for the U.S. Catholic Conference, retorted: "It doesn't take any money away from the public school system. This is a simple example of a piece of legislation that aids children and parents but isn't aiding any kind of institution directly."

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