BOSTON has closed one sad chapter on public education and opened another that could take it to the forefront of school reform. Last week's ruling by US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity, denying a motion to block implementation of a new ``choice'' plan for the city's schools, makes the transition possible. Judge Garrity's earlier decisions, in the mid-'70s, sparked Boston's explosive busing controversy. He virtually took charge of the local schools after concluding that elected officials were intent on maintaining racial divisions.
The judge found no taint of the old racial motivation on the present school committee and accordingly rejected the plaintiffs' argument that a choice arrangement would simply lead to resegregated education in Boston.
Just what the plan will lead to is unclear. The idea behind ``choice'' - President Bush's school reform of choice and one that's being tried or strongly considered in some 20 states - is that market dynamics can revitalize education. Parents and students will gravitate to institutions that show results, strengthening those schools and forcing others to either compete or close.
In the process, teachers are likely to be given wider leeway to try new ways of livening the learning process. Responsibilities of both teachers and principals will be heightened. Much depends on the working relationships within schools and the guidance of a good superintendent.
Choice is no cure-all. Critics worry that for some disadvantaged students education will only get worse under this system as brighter students, spurred by alert and informed parents, seek out the best schools. Boston officials say they're making an all-out effort to inform all parents of their options and opportunities.
Wherever the experiment leads, it's good to see the public schools in one of world's centers of learning take a step that could make them a model instead of an embarrassment.