A Poor Choice

PUBLIC schools need and deserve support. Yet many Americans don't trust these schools to provide the atmosphere or the values they cherish. Something seems wrong. The education of children is as important a responsibility as any a family undertakes, and parents scrape to move to affluent neighborhoods or spend thousands a year on private schools for a reason.

Some cities have begun to offer parents a choice among public schools, and to bring a more disciplined educational focus - be it traditional or progressive - to those schools. School reform, however, is hard work. Many reforms have been watered down; some have foundered on the shoals of the teacher unions.

In California a group of unhappy libertarians are trying to take a Sacramento shortcut: Don't fight the school system from the inside - put a proposition for school vouchers on the ballot. Next Tuesday, California votes up or down on Proposition 174. If it succeeds, parents who want an alternative to public schools will get a voucher of $2,600 per child to find schooling elsewhere. ``Why sentence the children of low- and middle-income parents to bad schools,'' proponents argue, ``when others have choice? A voucher program will force the public schools to improve by offering competition. Religious parents are taxpaying Americans too - why must their children attend schools hostile to the family's values?''

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These arguments cannot simply be dismissed. They do merit consideration by the education establishment. But the new ``solution'' does not meet its supporters' objectives. It is loaded with vague assumptions, unanswered questions, and hidden costs. For the already-overburdened state budget to break even, one million children would have to participate. That is unlikely. Even if they did, where would they go? There are not enough private schools to take them.

The most important question - how to improve opportunity for some without damaging the current school system - is glossed over. The spirit of Prop. 174 derives from the free-market assumptions of the 1980s: Government is bad, and the way to make it better is to criticize, withdraw, privatize, tear it apart, experiment.

Yet is it really wise to dismantle an institution as important as the public schools, however imperfect, without offering a backup plan? No wonder Gov. Pete Wilson (R) and many parents who work hard in the California PTA system oppose Prop. 174.

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