Rafael Sklabounos takes two trains and a bus and rides for an hour and a half to get from his home in the suburban Queens borough of New York City to his school in the inner-city neighborhood of East Harlem. He makes the trip by choice -- because he wants to attend the Isaac Newton School. Newton is a public school in New York City's District 4, one of 32 community districts that govern elementary and junior high schools in various sections of the city.
Rafael's ability to make such a choice touches on one of the most fundamental debates in American education today.
Secretary of Education William Bennett this month proposed converting the $3.7 billion federal education program, known as Chapter I, into a ``voucher'' program. At present, funds from that program go directly to schools to provide remedial instruction to nearly 5 million children from low-income families. Under the secretary's plan, the money would go instead to the children's families in the form of vouchers, worth about $600, that could be redeemed for the special instruction at a public school or fo r a $600 discount on private school tuition costs.
Proponents of the plan argue it enhances options for those who cannot afford private school tuitions. Critics contend it does little for the poor and threatens an already ailing public school system with a loss of funds.
Alternative schools, such as those in District 4, bridge the debate by providing yet another solution to the kinds of problems Chapter I students face.
``I heard about the school from my friend Socrates,'' Rafael recalls. ``Socrates heard about it from Juan Martinez. In all, five of us came over,'' Rafael adds, from a Roman Catholic parochial school they attended in Manhattan.
Rafael chose Newton because he liked its accelerated math-science program, its many computer courses, and its well-equipped science labs. He says his mother ``mostly likes the discipline.''
Newton is a part of a network of 24 ``alternative'' schools in this district. The educational programs here, built around educational themes or philosophies, have opened an array of options to the 10,500 East Harlem students, many of them from minority and low-income families. At the same time, the program has attracted 1,500 students who, like Rafael, come from outside the district.
``We've really created, short of going into a voucher system, a school district where we really have choices,'' says Robert Rodriguez, president of the District 4 Board of Education.
The number of alternative schools in the United States has grown rapidly in the last decade, from fewer than 12 in 1970 to more than 1,200 in 1975.
While District 4 pursued alternatives as part of a school-improvement program, other districts often launched them as ``magnet schools'' in desegregation plans, where the special programs were designed to attract students of many races to the schools.
To the families who take advantage of them, alternative schools present some of the benefits associated with private schools with the no-cost tradition of public education.
Typically, classes are smaller, discipline is better, achievement is higher, and parent support is stronger in alternative schools than in traditional public schools.
Until alternative schools came to East Harlem, the district had the problems that have driven many students out of public schools and spurred the demand for vouchers and other programs aimed at helping families with private school tuition costs.
In 1973, the year before its first two alternative schools were begun, students in District 4 scored lowest in New York City on achievement tests in math and reading. Only 13 of the district's junior high students were accepted into the city's specialized high schools for high achievers.
By last year, however, its students' reading and math scores ranked 17th among New York's 32 school districts, and 280 of its students were accepted at the specialized high schools.
Seymour Fliegel, District 4's deputy superintendent, echoes arguments against vouchers made by many in public education -- that vouchers will erode the Chapter I programs now serving disadvantaged children, while not going far enough to bring private school tuitions within reach of their families.
``But I do support competition with private schools,'' he adds.
``It only increases the responsibility of public education to offer quality choices. With competition, schools only get better.''
District 4 made education a competitive business in 1981, when school officials eliminated attendance zones for junior high schools. Since then, students leaving elementary school have been required to choose the program they think is best for them. Three alternative elementary schools compete with the traditional elementary schools in the district.
Spurred by the competition, explains Mr. Fliegel, school principals and their staffs began finding innovative ways to upgrade their programs. ``The existence of the alternatives in our district had a symbiotic relationship to all schools. I can give you many examples of the alternative schools' having improved the quality of traditional schools,'' Fliegel says.
Competition, even among public schools, is not without controversy. A number of other New York community school districts appealed to the citywide board of education to intervene when, in the early 1980s, they began witnessing an exodus of their own students to the alternative schools in District 4.
Fliegel is fond of paraphrasing the response of Frank Macchiarola, who was the city's school chancellor at the time: ``The question you should be asking is not `Why are they stealing my students,' but `Why are the students leaving?' ''