The U.S. Senate's recent vote to expand tax breaks for private-school tuition is a small, if symbolic victory for Catholic parents looking for a fair shake from the tax code.

A bill approved 61-37 would allow parents to place as much as $2,000 per year, per child, in education savings accounts. Through 2003, it would permit the tax-free interest from those contributions to be used for transportation, tutors, books and any other expenses for K-12 public, private or parochial schools.

Critics warn that the bill would divert money from public schools and chiefly benefit those wealthier families who could sock away money in the education accounts. But middle-class parents are tired of being deprived of government aid simply because it might also help the rich. Given the decay in the nation's public school systems, including the ones that are best funded, we suspect that many middle-classers would be willing to accept the short-term privations for the long-term good of a quality education for their children. Which is something that they are not able to choose right now.

The measure, however, isn't vetoproof. Which means it may amount to little more than an election-year, crowd-pleasing gesture.

But even as a gesture it has value, especially if it puts the Election 2000 spotlight on the whole tax break/school voucher debate. For parents of all faiths, it may be more relevant than debates over state flags and anti-religious Web sites.

Democracy in Minnesota

Pro-lifers are taking the initiative in Minnesota. A coalition of organizations have collected 40,000 signatures on a petition to stop taxpayer funding of abortions (see Page 16). They hope their move will greatly strengthen future efforts to enact a referendum or constitutional amendment.

The abortion-funding issue never should have come up in the first place, as Jim Tarsney of Minnesota Lawyers for Life pointed out. The state's Supreme Court dictated the funding, from the top down. That was enough to stir up grass-root pro-lifers, who bristled at this exercise of funding-without-representation.

The result is an exercise in Democracy 101. Petitions were circulated, signatures collected, legislators approached, and town meetings planned. The outcome is yet to be seen. But for now it's gratifying to see that mad-as-heck pro-lifers aren't going to take it anymore. Pro-lifers elsewhere, take note.