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Choice on Schools

TWO major needs in American public education may be on converging paths. The first is the need to shake school administrators out of a comfortable status quo and force creative change. The second is the need to get millions of parents more actively interested in their childrens' education. Need No. 1 has already generated years of school reform in the United States. In the early '80s the sad state of much public education burst into the national consciousness. Reform schemes proliferated, and ideas like longer school years, merit pay for teachers, and stronger emphases on the basics of math and language took hold. Still, performance continues to fall short of hopes, as recent reviews of the situation in California, which educates one of every eight American children, attest. And California has been a leader in reform efforts.

The shakeup now being contemplated, by George Bush among others, is called, simply, ``choice.'' In essence, it means giving parents the freedom to send their offspring to any public school in their community or even in other communities. If the nearby school, the one a child would normally be assigned to, is doing a poor job, choose another. The idea of ``choice'' has been kicking around for years, but has recently been given substantial practical tests. More than 20 states have programs or are considering them. Boston recently adopted a citywide choice plan. Minnesota has a statewide plan.

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The value of choice, of course, is that it gives individual schools and school districts a huge incentive to improve their offerings in order to attract or keep students - and thus draw funding. Problems exist too - chief of which is the possibility that poor, often heavily minority districts will suffer even more as students and resources gravitate elsewhere.

But there can be little doubt that choice holds the potential of giving parents a bigger role in education. Lack of interest from parents was cited as a major problem in education by the thousands of teachers surveyed in a recent study by the Carnegie Endowment for the Advancement of Teaching. Choice could help address that need too.

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