Choosing a `Choice' Plan

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GIVING parents a ``choice'' where to send their children to school is the most popular reform idea in US public education. Nearly every major city today has a choice plan. At its best, choice allows schools to define a distinct ``mission'' - say, an approach based on the traditional or progressive educational ideas and quality of instruction often found in private schools. At the same time, choice, by giving parents options, offers equity and access for less advantaged students. Choice beats busing hands down.

Types of choice vary. Choice can exist within schools - as in the oft-cited East Harlem, New York, case. Choice can take place within neighborhoods, districts - or, as in many states, across districts.

Now, eight years into US school reform, two respected Brookings Institution experts say current choice plans are too weak to seriously restructure America's ailing schools. They advocate a radical change - a new public school system based entirely on free-market choice. The dense government and bureaucratic thatch in school systems needs clearing, they say. Sounding like, well, Ronald Reagan, one of the experts, John Chubb, writes: ``Government has not solved the education problem because government is the problem.''

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In the proposal of Mr. Chubb and colleague Larry Moe, each student would receive a ``scholarship'' or voucher. Parents apply to whatever school they feel best suits their child. Money flows through a district ``choice office.'' Schools make their own tuitiona and acceptance policies.

``Bravo'' to Chubb and Mr. Moe for their bold proposal. The school reform movement isn't getting any younger. The fact that liberal-leaning Brookings has sponsored the effort adds a significant dimension. Previous such proposals have come from the political and religious right.

School reform has been too timid. Students, especially in urban districts, deserve better. It's telling that in cities such as Chicago, Nashville, and Albany, public school teachers are twice as likely as average citizens to send their children to private schools.

The Brookings blueprint, however, is flawed. It's based on an assumed total failure of the current system when in fact many schools are improving. Too, letting schools decide standards raises fairness problems. Parochial schools would receive money. Yet funding for religious schools raise troubling church-state issues. There aren't enough immediate, visible safeguards in the Brookings plan. It's a massive changeover that would, in the nitty-gritty of school politics, create five years of chaos. As a leading choice practitioner working in the trenches tells us: ``I can't be satisfied unless in the short term everyone benefits. In 20 years the plan might work. But I can't wait 20 years. I'm responsible to parents now.''

Radical change is needed. But choice must take into account differences in locales and students. And it must reflect a conscious, democratic spirit of equity, as well as free-market competition.

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