Bush Revisits School-Voucher Talk
With Focus on Tuition Tax Credit


WASHINGTON -- President Bush reopened debate on the politically divisive issue of school vouchers, but in policy terms his administration is plotting a less controversial course.

In an appearance at Milwaukee's Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, Mr. Bush lauded a Wisconsin program that helps parents pay private-school tuition with public funds. "Call it whatever you want to call it -- vouchers, choice -- whatever it is. Freedom for parents is what I call it," Mr. Bush said. He delivered a similar message Monday in Ohio, a state that last week won U.S. Supreme Court backing of its school voucher program.

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Mr. Bush, however, didn't call for approval of federal vouchers, an idea he abandoned last year to appease Democratic and moderate Republican critics and thus win votes for his broader education-reform package. Rather, he urged lawmakers in his speech Tuesday to pass his proposed $3.5 billion tuition tax credit to help parents "make choices if they're dissatisfied with the status quo."

The reason for the shift in emphasis -- from vouchers to tax credits -- is simple: Credits, which give taxpayers a break on their income taxes for money spent on school tuition, come with less political baggage and have a greater chance of being enacted. Even a Supreme Court blessing couldn't erase the bitter battle lines drawn over vouchers in recent years. With the tax-credit approach, Mr. Bush has a chance to deliver on a promise to his conservative base without alienating the moderate suburban voters whom he hopes to attract with the "compassionate" conservative message that he is trumpeting during appearances this week.

A June poll done for the Midland, Mich.-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market-oriented think tank that is a leading promoter of tuition tax credits, found that 49% of Michigan voters opposed the kind of voucher program that the Supreme Court recently upheld because they worry that it could drain resources from public schools.

But majorities supported tax credits for both private and public costs: 56% endorsed the use of tax dollars to reimburse parents for private-school costs and 67% supported the same idea for public-school tuition. "We think tax credits are as effective as vouchers and are more politically saleable," said Joseph Overton, the Mackinac Center's senior vice president.

But the tax-credit approach could miss the very constituency that the president says needs the most help: the inner-city poor, since many of those families don't pay taxes, and for whom $2,500 wouldn't go far toward paying private-school tuition. Current education tax credits, available in six states, favor the middle class and corporations that contribute to local scholarship funds. Tax-credit supporters, however, say the legislation could be carefully drafted to reach the president's target audience.

Mr. Bush still has a voucher proposal in his 2003 budget: $50 million for a federal pilot program. But no lawmakers are pushing it, and an identical proposal offered last year by Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) was defeated in the Senate on a 41-58 vote. On Tuesday, Mr. Gregg's office said the senator would concentrate on trying to pass a voucher plan for Washington, D.C., schools, instead of pushing for a nationwide demonstration program.

In a White House meeting with Catholic leaders last year, the president complained that school vouchers are "like the abortion issue. I mean, there is kind of a built-in prejudice against a particular position on both sides of both issues."

Still, Mr. Bush's decision to add vouchers to his compassionate conservative portfolio is raising hopes among conservatives. Clint Bolick, vice president of the Institute for Justice, a conservative public-interest law group here that weighed in on the Ohio case, says, "I don't see why the president would raise it at this point if he weren't willing to fight for it."