PRIME MINISTER Massimo D'Alema has been urged to pay the salaries of private sector teachers from the public purse.
The demand, from a leading member of the Partito Popolare Italiano, a party in the ruling centre-left coalition, follows a rally at St Peter's Square in Rome.
The protest, attended by 200,000 people, was against recent legislation on "parity" between state and private (Catholic) sectors.
During the rally, which was attended by all the major leaders from the centre right opposition alliance, Pope John Paul II called the legislation "unsatisfactory".
The package includes cash for private nursery schools (in some areas the only pre-schools available), help for schools which cater for handicapped children, and free textbooks for all pupils from low-income families.
Supporters of Catholic schools argue that the time has come to recognise the public service provided by the hard-up private sector, with its 280,000 pupils in 2,400 schools. But the Italian constitution of 1948 forbids direct funding of the private sector (excluding nursery education), and for almost 50 years the ruling Christian Democrat party managed to avoid the issue.
However, the legislation doesn't go far enough for the Pope and the bishops, who fear cash-strapped Catholic schools will be forced to close.
Opposition leaders have welcomed the call from Popolari education spokesman Giovanni Manzoni. He argued that it would cost the state only pound;700 per pupil per year to pay the teachers, compared with four times this amount in the state sector.
Prime minister D'Alema said: "This issue is all about the right of a minority to attend a private school. This right must be guaranteed, but we mustn't lose sight of the many who can't afford to go to a private school but who have a right to quality education."