SCHOOL choice is currently topping the list of what's ``in'' for education reform in the 1990s. Championed by President Bush and embraced by liberals and conservatives alike, ``choice'' has the appealing ring of a fundamental freedom. ``It resonates politically,'' says Michael Alves, an educational consultant who helped design a choice program in Cambridge, Mass. (see story Page 13).
The best way to foster reform, proponents of the policy say, is to level the educational playing field by offering more parents the chance to choose the school best suited for their child. Public-school choice has been gaining momentum in a number of states for years. Recent developments suggest a growing interest in expanding choice to include private schools also.
Wealthy parents have always had the option of moving into a good school district or putting their kids in private schools if dissatisfied with the public institutions. The choice movement aims to give parents of modest means the same ability to ``vote with their feet.''
``More and more school districts are recognizing that traditional schools don't work for all kids and are developing new kinds of options,'' says Joe Nathan, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs and author of ``Public Schools by Choice.''
For decades, alternative schools and magnet schools have provided a variety of settings for a select group of students. The choice movement's new twist is an emphasis on marketplace principles. Choice advocates argue that free-market competition drives educational improvement and promotes accountability. With the introduction of competition, schools that don't attract students will be forced to either shape up or shut down.
More than 30 states now have some type of choice incorporated in the public school systems (see boxed story). In its full range of forms, the policy of school choice is variously lauded as an effective desegregation method, a powerful catalyst for reform, and a more equitable, efficient means of organization.
But opponents contend that inferior schools would simply become holding pens for students with special needs or those not accepted elsewhere for any number of reasons. The staunchest resisters of choice view the policy as an effort to undermine public education.
The agenda for some choice advocates is to get government out of the direct provision of public education and to gain public support for private schools, says Richard Elmore, professor of education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
During the Reagan administration, there was a strong push for tuition vouchers that parents could use at either a public or private school. Congressional concerns about diverting public money to private schools stalled that idea.
GENERALLY regarded as a conservative preference, the move toward public funding of private schools has recently gotten a leg up from the other side of the political fence.
Polly Williams, a state representative in Wisconsin and a Democrat, helped pass the first private-school voucher plan. Starting this past September, several hundred low-income children in Milwaukee began attending private schools at state expense.
Last summer, Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington think tank, published a book that sparked widespread debate about school choice. ``Politics, Markets, and America's Schools,'' written by Brookings fellow John E. Chubb and Stanford University political scientist Terry M. Moe, calls for a new educational system in which private schools would join with public schools in competing for students - and funds.
A general frustration with school reform as usual is fostering an openness to new - perhaps radical - ideas, says Mr. Chubb. ``We wouldn't be talking about these ideas if the city schools were pretty good. They're not even close to pretty good.''
But, Professor Elmore says, ``It raises very serious issues to include private schools in any plan. We need to have a fundamental debate about the role that private education plays and what responsibilities come with accepting public money.
``People are basically deceiving themselves if they think that opening up choice is going to pull government out of people's lives,'' he says. ``If it's fair and equitable, it's going to involve government.''
The existing models that are successful, Elmore says, all rely heavily on government support.
Nevertheless, some people consider school choice a low-cost cure-all for ailing school systems. That's a myth, Mr. Alves says. ``Transportation increases when you have a choice plan, parent-information costs money, and educational improvement costs money.''
Bush has spoken of choice as ``the single most promising'' reform idea of recent years and declared that ``further expansion of public-school choice is a national imperative.''
In December, the government established the Center for Choice in Education, a Washington research organization designed to assist parents and school districts involved with parental-choice programs. The administration's proposed 1992 budget includes $200 million for grants to school districts that are developing choice plans. Only programs that include both public and private schools would be eligible for the funds.
``Just having a hot line, sending people brochures, and having a few workshops is not enough,'' Alves says.
The current federal support for choice is merely symbolic, Elmore says. ``It's window dressing - a way of increasing the visibility of the issue without making a serious commitment.''
``The federal government and many of these choice advocates have ignored all of the practical issues involved in making choice work,'' Alves says.
The various forms of school choice offer positive possibilities, Alves and others say. But, they warn, caution is in order.
``There isn't much evidence, in fact practically none,'' Alves says, ``that just because a parent chose a school for a child means that it's going to make a child a better student.''
According to several educators, research shows that successful choice programs require a serious commitment and investment in two areas: the quality of all schools, especially those that are faltering, and thorough information services for parents.
``Choice can be used to promote equity. But it does not always do so,'' Mr. Nathan says. ``We need to be careful about what we do.''
``It's not enough to have a few schools that are real good and that everyone wants to go to,'' Alves says. ``The real challenge is what to do about the schools that are dysfunctional. The reality is that you can't give up on them.''