Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session on Proposed Tuition Tax Credit Legislation With Editors of Religious Publications

September 14, 1982

Mr. Meese. [Edwin Meese III, Counsellor to the President] Mr. President, we've just been having a discussion that's kind of a follow-on to your speech in Kansas on American values, and we've discussed some of the legislative issues that are related to those values. So, you might want to say a few words yourself on the subject.

The President. Well, all right. Yes, I will. I think my timing is terrible, though. As an after-lunch and after-dinner speaker, I can tell you that one of the great hazards that always drives me up the wall -- I happen to be a dessert man myself. [Laughter] And usually I hear the toastmaster introducing me just as they're putting the dessert in front of me, and I have to get up and walk away from it. [Laughter] I feel as if I've done that to you. But go ahead and, please, go ahead and eat while we're talking.

I'm delighted that you're all here, and I know that you've been briefed and had a briefing on the subject of our legislation for tuition tax credits. And I expect to make another strike and try for a breakthrough in that today and hope to get it out of the Senate committee and onto the floor, because I'll be meeting very shortly with Senators Dole and Moynihan and Roth and Packwood on this particular subject.

I know there's been a lot of debate and discussion about the issue. I doubt if there's much opposition among you -- I hope not -- to this idea. I don't know whether Ed or Karna [Karna Small Stringer, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Media Relations and Planning] told you about a survey that we've just come across, research done in 54 parochial schools, that found with regard to -- I say this as an answer to those people that, again, have just automatically tagged this proposal as ``something for the rich.'' All they think of when they think of private -- that's why I try to avoid the word ``private'' school. I try to refer to it as ``independent'' school, because all they think about is someone sending a child to a high-class, expensive finishing school or prep school. And that isn't true. That isn't what we're really talking about. There are so few of those compared to the general parochial schools, independent schools, throughout the country.

But in this survey of 54 schools, they found 56 percent in these parochial schools of the student body were black; 31 percent of those were Protestant. Now, I know there are Protestant schools represented here as well as the Catholic schools. But what they also learned was -- and the parents, incidentally, of most of these children, the overwhelming majority, are not anywhere up on the economic scale. As a matter of fact, the average tuition of those schools worked out to $300. That was a true hardship at the economic level of the parents who, wanting something better for their children, as parents have from time immemorial, and wanting the best education they could provide for them, were willing to sacrifice and pay a tuition to a private school because they no longer had confidence in the public schools in their areas, that they could get the training that they would need to advance. And they found that it was not religion that had prompted the overwhelming majority to choose a religious school, whether Protestant or Catholic; it was the desire and the belief that they would get a better education there than they could get in the present-day public schools.

Now, I'm a product of the public schools, myself, in a small town in Illinois. But I believe all of us are aware that there have been changes. I happen to believe that as long as there is independent education in this country, all the way from the lowest grade on up through college and university, then we have academic freedom. I would hate to see the day when all education in our country was tax-supported and, therefore, under political guidance and rule. And I think, also, the best chance to improve the quality of education -- which on the record has very definitely established that in public schools, under whatever pressures or crowding or whatever, has slumped in comparison to the schools that we're talking about -- the best chance we have of raising that level is through competition.

So, we're going to do everything we can. I believe heart and soul and campaigned on this issue. The fairness of it -- the fact that families are paying their full share of the taxes to support the public school system and are still willing to sacrifice on top of that and pay fully the cost for sending their child -- there's no way that this can be construed, as some are trying to do, as an assault on the public schools, or that in any way it is taking anything away from the support of the public schools. And if anyone wants to do a little arithmetic, let them sit down and figure out if these independent schools disappeared tomorrow, and the public schools had to pick up the burden of all of the students presently being educated in these other schools, what would happen to the taxes of everyone? Where would the public facilities come from -- school facilities?

So, I've gone on longer than I wanted. If someone here had just -- I know I've only got a second or two before I've got to cross the hall. But if there was a question or two that hasn't been answered in the briefing, or that you'd like to throw at me just because I'm here, fire away.

Q. Mr. President, about the issue of a compromise that you're going to be working out this afternoon with some people from the Finance Committee, doesn't the issue hinge on segregation? And what kinds of provisions would be acceptable to you for you to strengthen the bill to satisfy some of its critics?

The President. Well, I have to believe that since this will be a tax credit, and by the government, I have to believe that, obviously, such schools would have to meet the standards of integration and be open to all. And I haven't seen any evidence that that isn't already taking place. The figures that I just gave a moment ago ensure that that's taking place in the schools that we're talking about.

Q. Well, Mr. President, don't you think this could be attacked as somewhat of a band-aid approach to education? Shouldn't your administration be trying to upgrade the quality of public education?

The President. Well, of course, public education is not a function of the Federal Government. There is financial aid in recent years to some of these schools. And, as a matter of fact, being able to remember when that began, it was the usual thing of the Federal Government claiming that there was distress after the Federal Government had usurped most of the tax sources in the country. And, having created the problem, then, for local rule, the Federal Government said, ``Oh, we must help you.'' And in the beginning educators opposed that, because they thought that it would interfere with academic freedom. And the Federal Government insisted, ``Oh, no.'' It just wanted to help them out financially.

I remember on one occasion -- Francis Kepple was the Director of Education at the time at the Federal level, and he said they had absolutely no intention of interfering in any way. And some of the educators who were debating this issue had proposed a tax credit idea of contributions to schools, whether public or independent, of a certain amount, and said let the government -- they'd know better -- set the amount. And wouldn't this be direct aid, then, financially? -- a tax credit for a contribution to a school, whether public or private, keeping open the competitive idea. And why wouldn't such a thing work? And after days and days of debate, Mr. Kepple gave away more than he'd intended. He suddenly grew impatient, and he blurted out, ``Well, under such a system we couldn't achieve our social objectives.'' This was from the man that had said there wouldn't be any government social objectives, there would just be financial aid.

No, I think the Federal Government has done what it can to ensure that in the running of the public schools, they must live up to our Constitution, which they did not always do, as we know, and some years ago there had to be some rather drastic action to bring that about. That is the function of the Federal Government -- to ensure that anyone's constitutional rights are being observed and to go wherever the government has to go to see that that does take place.

If you look at some of the figures in the public school system in recent years, you will find that the Federal Government has more than matched its financial aid with interference in the running of schools. And I believe that this is what has led to the deterioration of quality; that the Federal Government has imposed out of all proportion -- I think the Federal Government puts up about 8 percent of the cost of public education, but it interferes far more than 8 percent in the things that it imposes and demands of the public schools.

Mr. Gergen. [David R. Gergen, Assistant to the President for Communications] Mr. President? Sir, you have a 1 o'clock appointment.

The President. Oh, all right. Well, there was one hand down here that -- Father?

Q. Mr. President, what is your assessment of the possibility in the country for a human life amendment, an antiabortion amendment of any type to the Constitution?

The President. Well, the one that is presently being blocked by a filibuster I know has been in a sense cluttered up with a lot of extra and extraneous other resolutions, which have weakened support for it, and probably is one of the reasons that we're apparently not able to get cloture to shut off the filibuster. If that continues, then the only outcome can be for the leader of the Senate to table that particular amendment, which then opens the floor for several others that are waiting on that same subject.

My own feeling is I'm going to fight as long and hard as I can. And what I said in Philadelphia recently about that -- I've been a little critical sometimes to myself, not openly, about some of the human life groups, because, first of all, they have not rallied behind a single measure. They've been divided behind these several -- in support of these various, several members, and that's what's kept us from bringing this to the floor and getting a determination.

But the other thing is I have wished that they could center on a much more simple approach. And I tried this out in speaking to the Knights of Columbus in Philadelphia. We've had extensive hearings in the Senate to determine, ``when does life begin?'' -- and great expert testimony given by people of conflicting views on that. But the upshot was no real firm decision as to when life begins. And I think that, in itself, was a decision. If you cannot determine when life begins, then doesn't simple morality dictate that you opt for the fact that it is alive until and unless someone can prove it dead?

If we came upon a body in the street that was unconscious, and we weren't sure whether it was unconscious or dead, we wouldn't say, ``Let's bury it.'' We'd wait until someone assured us that it wasn't alive.

And I think the same thing goes of the unborn child. I happen to believe the unborn child is a living human being. I think the fact that children have been prematurely born, even down to the 3-month stage, and have lived to -- the record shows -- to grow up and be normal human beings, that ought to be enough for all of us. And I just don't think there's anything other than self-protection, the protection of the mother's life, that justifies taking of a human life. We condone it in self-defense. We can condone it in no other way. And I'm going to -- I intend to fight it out in that line if it takes all -- [laughing] -- all 4 years.

Mr. Gergen. Thanks very much, Mr. President.

Q. Thank you, sir.

The President. Thank you, again, for being here.

Note: The President spoke at 12:50 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.