A Choice of Choice Plans

EDUCATIONAL choice means different things to different people. The term encompasses a wide variety of programs giving parents some say in where their children attend school. Variations of the policy depend on the particular goals and needs of each state or community.

``The same kinds of choice programs aren't always appropriate for different localities,'' says Joe Nathan, author of ``Public Schools by Choice.''

School choice policies throughout the United States break down into four general categories:

Magnet and alternative schools. Early forms of public school choice appeared in the 1970s as magnet schools became a popular way to avoid mandatory desegregation plans. Specialized programs successfully attracted both black and white students to magnet schools, many located in inner-city areas.

One limitation of magnet schools is the small percentage of students able to enroll. Competition for funding and placement often pits magnet and traditional schools against each other.

Controlled choice. Under this system, parents may choose any public school in their district, although they are not guaranteed their first choice.

Enrollment guidelines are designed to make sure each school reflects the racial composition of the overall school population.

Schools are given the freedom to develop specialized programming to attract students and the more popular ideas are replicated to avoid a monopoly or overcrowding.

``You just can't say that everybody can choose where they want to go to school,'' explains Michael Alves, who has helped design several controlled-choice programs. ``If a school can only enroll 300 students, it can't enroll 3,000 students.''

About 14 school districts in the United States now operate with controlled choice.

Interdistrict choice or open enrollment. These programs allow students to transfer from the public school district where they live to any other district statewide. Then the state takes per-pupil funds from the original school system and deposits the money with the new school system of choice.

About eight states are now operating with statewide choice.

Vouchers or tuition tax credits. These options provide public financing for public school students to attend private schools.

Milwaukee pioneered a limited plan this fall that allows students from disadvantaged families to enroll in nonsectarian private schools instead of their neighborhood schools. The state applies its per-student expenditure of $2,500 to private school tuition for several hundred qualifying students. The legality of this plan is being challenged.

In December, the small town of Epsom, N.H., voted to offer $1,000 tax breaks to families sending their children anywhere other than the local public high school.

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