Virginia's religious conservatives are gearing up for a legislative campaign in favor of tuition tax credits for private school education. Buoyed by recent election results, proponents of tuition tax credits have been holding meetings across the commonwealth to prepare their constituency for this month's legislative session.

Tuition tax credits may seem less threatening than vouchers to the well-being of public education. But they are just as pernicious and problematic as vouchers and would achieve the same result: a diversion of tax dollars away from public education to private schools and the eventual diminution of funding for Virginia's public school system.

Supporters know that vouchers probably violate the Virginia Constitution, so they have devised a seemingly benign scheme that they claim passes constitutional muster. When scrutinized, however, the case for tuition tax credits falls flat.

Proponents argue that not only will tax credits pose no burden to the state budget but that they also will generate income for the state. However, Virginia school divisions receive funding from the state based on average daily membership. If a student isn't present, the schools don't get the money.

With more than 80,000 students in private and religious schools and another 10,000 being home-schooled, tuition tax credits would cost the state as much as $180 million before the first additional child went to a private school or was home-schooled. With the growth in Virginia's school population, the public schools cannot spare a single dollar.

Proponents further argue that tax credits promote competition. Competition can be a great motivator; however, fair competition requires a level playing field. The fundamental difference between public and private schools is that private schools select who attends, while public schools accept everyone. Clearly, it is unfair to compare a system offering education to all and a system that excludes students who may be difficult and expensive to educate.

Nevertheless, studies of the voucher plans (which work similarly to tuition tax credits) in Cleveland and Milwaukee have concluded that vouchers don't improve overall student achievement. One study even found that public school students placed in small classes outperformed their counterparts in voucher schools.

Last, proponents argue that tax credits will benefit poor children in bad public schools. However, few poor families will be able to bridge the gap between the $2,000 voucher or tax credit and a $10,000 private school tuition. Moreover, low-income families often pay little, if any, income tax in the first place and thus would derive no benefit from tax credits. At bottom, tuition tax credits are taxpayer-funded rebates for families that already can afford to send their kids to private schools.

Residents of Northern Virginia prize their top-notch public schools. I hope that they will recognize the drawbacks of this ill-conceived initiative before it's too late.

-- David Bernstein

is the Washington area director of the American Jewish Committee.