President Reagan's education advisers are weighing an idea that dates back to 18th- century economist Adam Smith: give government vouchers (flat grants of money) to parents so they can send their children to the school of their choice -- public or private.
They view this free-market approach as a drastic way to give communities more control over education and also help the nation's financially ailing private schools. The voucher idea was a part of the 1980 Republican Party platform.
Despite the incoming administration's interest, however, not everyone sees a voucher plan as a panacea to schools nagged by financial and social problems. Just last June voucher critics shackled efforts to get the issue on the California ballot.
An experimental voucher system was attempted in Alum Rock, Calif., just outside San Jose, in the early 1970s, wen Mr. Reagan was California governor. It has been called a "failure" by opponents.
Nationwide, critics say voucher would stall efforts to bring about school desegregation, would help the affluent more than low- income schoolchildren, would destroy both public and private education, and would cost too much.
Nevertheless, Capitol Hill conservatives are beginning to corral their forces in behalf of vouchers.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, new chairman of the Senate Labor and Education Committee, has tapped Jed Richardson, a voucher enthusiast from Brigham Young University, to guide staff research on education.
The Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative "think tank" with close ties to the incoming administration, recommends the vouchers. Its recommendation draws heavily on the research of two University of California at Berkeley law professors, John E. Coons and Stephen Sugarman, who are considered architects of an increasingly active state voucher movement.
Voucher supporters see federal grants supplementing state funds. Parents would pick up voucher checks from Federal Reserve Banks and pay them to their chosen school system. Mr. Richardson also proposes tax credits to the private sector for contributions to vocational education.
"The voucher idea can revive free public education as a reliable vehicle for the training of children for at least a decade to come," says Professor Coons. "And it can save private education, too."
But the California Department of Education, led by Secretary Wilson C. Riles, fought the voucher idea when it was proposed for a referendum vote last June. Supporters were not able to get the necessary 500,000 signatures to place the proposal -- entitled "An Initiative for Family Choice in Education" -- on the ballot.
Professor Coons says the voucher plan he advocates would not undermine public education. "We do not advocate tax credits for people who send their kids to private schools," explains Professor Coons. "Our idea is to give the poor, blacks, Hispanics, and other disadvantaged people a choice of schools for their children, rather than shackle them to inadequate public schools. They may select another public school system or a private school. This would improve both public and private education."
Many blacks, especially in the South, argue that vouchers are a ploy to provide financial support to all-white private academies that have sp routed up to prevent desegregation of public schools.