`CHOICE' - allowing parents to choose the public school their children attend - is on its way to becoming one of the hottest items on the school reform agenda this year. Until now, ``choice'' and ``vouchers'' have been linked with the Reagan administration's unpopular and unsuccessful effort to give aid to private schools - specifically, to fundamentalist Christian and Roman Catholic institutions.
But the latest innovation - touted as an elegant solution to a number of educational problems, from desegregation to teaching values effectively - is to offer choice within public school districts.
In East Harlem, N.Y., St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn., and Cambridge, Mass., parents have exercised a ``public choice'' option among elementary and middle schools for several years.
This fall, school districts in Little Rock, Ark., and in Fall River and Lowell, Mass., will also open with a choice option.
One of the main arguments for choice is that it offers a fair method of desegregation. There is no forced busing. Parents can try different schools for their children. Schools with higher parental involvement are better schools, experts say.
But advocates of choice - among them, some of the top thinkers in education today - say choice not only improves equity, it also creates the conditions for excellence and the kind of school reform that heretofore has only been talked about.
Indeed, they say it forces school reform: In a choice system, schools no longer have a ``captive market.'' They must compete. Principals and teachers must scrutinize what they do more carefully. Basic but often ignored questions such as ``What should we teach and are we doing it well enough?'' become more vital. Leaders, and new ideas, emerge in such a climate. Teachers, often woefully isolated, must work more closely together and in many cases assume a more commanding, professional role - something they have been arguing for.
Schools are often ``restructured'' as a result of choice - become more distinctive. In St. Paul, for example, parents can choose among several types of schools: There is an ``open school,'' modeled from the progressive ideas of the 1960s, and a ``fundamentals school,'' where students take a core curriculum. A third school focuses on science and math; another follows the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori.
Schools with distinct identities impart a deeper, more coherent set of values than do schools that serve a thin moral and civic gruel designed to please every taste, experts say.
The bottom line, says Joe Nathan, one of the architects of the St. Paul plan, is that ``choice provides a better education with fewer dropouts. That's what we've found in every place it's been tried.''
Charles Glenn, director of the Equal Educational Opportunities Office in the state of Massachusetts, says choice offers a chance for real reform in schools, because it ``deals with the structural constraints of schools. Efforts to pay teachers more, do different kinds of teacher training, do a slight reshifting of curricula - these don't get at the basic question, `What are we doing in our schools?'''
Choice also offers the kind of flexibility among schools that will be needed as the ethnic and racial demographics of America's student body continue to change, Dr. Glenn says.
Public choice is developing political clout. Last fall the National Governors' Association agreed with the conclusion of a task force headed by then-Gov. Richard Lamm of Colorado that endorsed carefully monitored types of choice. ``We can remain dedicated to a system of public schools and still increase consumer sovereignty,'' Mr. Lamm wrote.
US Education Secretary William J. Bennett, and especially his chief education specialist, Assistant Secretary Chester E. Finn Jr., support public school choice. Dr. Finn told the Monitor that choice may be ``the answer'' for ailing US public schools.
Today, most major metropolitan school districts offer a kind of choice in specialized ``magnet'' schools - an idea that became popular in the late 1970s. Magnet schools are set up around themes like math, science, vocational education, or the arts.
``Magnets'' have been very popular and successful for the most part, experts say. But they often come with a built-in problem: They require extra money and attention. In Chicago, four students sign up for each magnet-school place. The result, observers say, is a two-tiered school system that still does not offer equal opportunity.
In effective choice systems, such as the one in East Harlem, N.Y., money and talent are evenly distributed across the system.
In Cambridge, which calls its plan ``controlled choice,'' parents sign up their children for one of three schools. Their choices are filtered through a formula that includes race, neighborhood, aptitude, and other factors before children are assigned to a school.
Other modified choice plans that will go into effect this fall include a new program in Maine that enables participating school districts to offer high school students the option of taking college courses. A similar statewide plan has been successful in Minnesota.
Reform-minded California has recently enacted a state law, the first of its kind, allowing parents to send their children to school in either the district they live in or the one the parents work in.
In Rochester, N.Y., the superintendent of schools has a proposal on the table asking that students have a choice among all Rochester high schools. The leading teacher organization in the city supports the plan. If adopted, it would be the first metropolitan high school choice plan in the nation.