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Choice in Schools

SECRETARY of Education Lamar Alexander's proposed "G.I. Bill for Kids," a $1,000 annual voucher for a million low- and middle-income parents to send their children to the public or private school of their choice, is an election-year education-reform gesture with little chance of passing Congress.

But the plan will appeal to a broad spectrum of disadvantaged and blue-collar voters, Catholics, evangelicals, and others desiring change - thus constituting a clear warning to the education establishment. The plan promotes change by giving parents a choice of schools, an idea that has languished in the becalmed Sargasso Sea of education reform.

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But it introduces the notion of federal funds for private schools - an idea 50 percent of Americans support, a 1991 Gallup Poll reports. Secretary Alexander's use of the G.I. Bill analogy may be apropos. Veterans use federal funds at religious colleges, he says; why are funds for children attending parochial schools a violation of the Constitution's establishment clause?

This reasoning overlooks the difference between the setting and mode of a grammar school with mandantory religious instruction and the setting of a college; the two can't be equated.

Whether or not one supports such funding, choice among both private and public schools is gaining momentum for two reasons:

First, a broader range of educators is supporting carefully designed choice experiments that include private schools. Vouchers are not just advocated by fundamentalists and free-marketeers. Supporters include those desiring equity; those who feel stolid school bureaucracies need competition; those arguing on educational grounds that there is "no one best school" and that students want strong schools.

Second, and more compellingly, is the demand for choice in inner cities. The suburbanization of America and middle-class flight has left urban schools that represent a kind of apartheid. Half the teachers in Chicago send their children to private schools. Recent lawsuits by Los Angeles and Chicago parents demand private school vouchers to "liberate" their children from city schools.

Private school vouchers are problematic: How is transportation paid? Can schools pick and choose among students, thus perpetuating inequity and injustice?

Public school choice is the ideal. East Harlem's choice plan breaks huge schools into smaller ones and has meant that 45 percent more children learn to read. Moreover, public schools offer an important implicit civic education. But if reform in cities is not swift, Congress may begin to allow limited choice experiments that include private schools.

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