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Choice and public schools

CHOICE can be a powerful catalyst for social and economic change. In a growing number of states and localities, that catalyst is also being applied to public education. Parents are selecting the public schools their children attend - even if it means crossing district lines. Education is a major election issue, as Vice-President Bush's speech yesterday shows. Republicans, already on record as supporting parental choice, should not view it as the answer to all public-school problems. They also must be willing to invest federal dollars to support parental choice programs for public schools. Democrats must be willing to differ with the National Education Association on this issue and give parental choice a chance to work. This could let the Democrats look tough on special interests. But schoolchildren will benefit most.

Where well-designed parental choice plans have been adopted - such as East Harlem, N.Y., Cambridge, Mass., and St. Paul, Minn. - pupils' test scores have risen, dropout rates have fallen, and teachers and parents have become more involved in educating their children.

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Choice contrasts markedly with assignments based on where students live, which give schools a captive audience. Too often this dulls the creativity of administrators and teachers. Teachers have little to say about policies. Inner-city school officials often adopt something of a siege mentality when viewing their captive audience; they may measure success by just getting through a day unscathed, rather than actually teaching anything.

Parental choice programs fall into two broad categories: those that cover schools within a district, which are especially useful in urban schools; and those that allow students to attend schools in other districts.

The incentives built into parental choice programs vary. In some cases, tax money follows the student; if a school or school system doesn't want to lose revenue, it improves its academic offerings.

If a particular school loses too many students, it may be closed, with remaining students attending other schools. In other cases, a school that consistently winds up at the bottom of parents' lists gets a new principal, with an accompanying mandate from the school board to find the problems and solve them. That way, students who remain in that school - because they choose to, because other choices fill up, or because they can't afford to travel to another school - aren't left to flounder.

The question of what happens to those left behind in an undesirable school, especially minority students in urban schools, is sensitive. Choice is seen by some as a smoke screen for a return to segregated schools. To ensure equity and ethnic diversity, parental choice programs must be designed to meet desegregation requirements as well as lead to increased opportunity. In addition, programs need a strong administrator with the authority to intervene when problems are identified. And school boards must ensure that parents receive as much information as possible, as early as possible, to make choices appropriate for their children.

The ultimate goal is an effective public-school system based on improving academics, cultural diversity, and parental choice. By harnessing the enlightened self-interest of parents, pupils, teachers, and administrators, well-designed choice programs can help meet this goal.

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