OFFERING a new spin on its school "choice" agenda, the Bush administration last week proposed offering low and middle income parents $1,000 vouchers to help send their children to the public, private or religious schools of their choice.
The idea promises to be a political debating point this presidential season. But no one - not even the Bush administration, which unveiled the plan in a White House ceremony with more than a thousand guests - expects Congress to touch the controversial issue this year.
The proposed $500 million "GI Bill for Children" represents the third version of a choice plan Mr. Bush has been unable to push through Congress since he campaigned as the "education president" in 1988.
Under the four-year pilot program, any state or locality could apply for federal funds to give each child from middle or low-income families a $1,000 annual scholarship to any lawfully operating school in the area. Part of the scholarship could be used for academic programs for children before or after school, on weekends, and during the summer.
Administration officials envision the $500 million spread among 500,000 students in several medium-sized cities. Los Angeles city schools alone, for example, have more than 400,000 students that would qualify for the money. But the program could easily pay for all qualifying students in several localities like Denver County, Colo., which has 41,000 qualifying students.
"This is the kind of bill with direct appeal to poor constituents. If you're unhappy with your kids' school, if it's dangerous and if the quality of education is poor, here's a thousand bucks, choose a new school. That has lot of appeal," says John Chubb, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the co-author of a book about choice.
"The worst of public schools will be run out of business ... so what?" he asks.
Choice is the dominant theme in the president's educational reform agenda. The theory of choice is that by allowing tax dollars to be used in a competitive education market, the best schools will be patronized and the worst will close.
It is touted as a social equalizer that would give the poor better access to quality education.
However, critics - including public school teachers unions and administra- tors and those in Congress who have continued to vote down Bush's choice plans - see the announcement last week as an attempt to polish up the president's domestic agenda, which was brought into unflattering focus during the Los Angeles riots this spring.
Even choice proponents sound skeptical about the administration's resolve to carry the choice issue beyond a campaign issue to actual implementation.
While most critics support choice among public schools, they raise questions about Bush's continued push to permit private and religious schools to receive tax dollars. They claim it violates the constitutional separation of church and state and that it threatens to undermine the nation's system of public schools.
"The administration has given a souped-up name to its school-voucher scheme, but it's the same old warmed-over proposal that Congress has already rejected," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachussetts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
"It is a serious mistake to use federal tax dollars to support private schools.... Our goal in education reform is to improve the public schools not abandon them."
Supporters admit that the proposal is going nowhere at the moment. But they suggest it is a further refinement of the idea of allowing tax dollars to follow the student to the school of his or her choice. It should be ready for the new Congress to consider in 1993.