Buzzword for the '90S: `Choice' Some Educators Question How Far States and Cities Should Go in Letting Parents Pick Schools. EDUCATIONAL REFORM

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SCHOOL choice is currently topping the list of what's "in" for education reform in the 1990s. Championed by President Bush and embraced by liberals and conservatives alike, "choice" has the appealing ring of a fundamental freedom.

"It resonates politically," says Michael Alves, an educational consultant who helped design a choice program in Cambridge, Mass. (see story Page 13).

The best way to foster reform, proponents of the policy say, is to level the educational playing field by offering more parents the chance to choose the school best suited for their child. Public-school choice has been gaining momentum in a number of states for years. Recent developments suggest a growing interest in expanding choice to include private schools also.

Wealthy parents have always had the option of moving into a good school district or putting their kids in private schools if dissatisfied with the public institutions. The choice movement aims to give parents of modest means the same ability to "vote with their feet."

"More and more school districts are recognizing that traditional schools don't work for all kids and are developing new kinds of options," says Joe Nathan, senior fellow at the University of Minnesota Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs and author of "Public Schools by Choice."

For decades, alternative schools and magnet schools have provided a variety of settings for a select group of students. The choice movement's new twist is an emphasis on marketplace principles. Choice advocates argue that free-market competition drives educational improvement and promotes accountability. With the introduction of competition, schools that don't attract students will be forced to either shape up or shut down.

More than 30 states now have some type of choice incorporated in the public school systems (see boxed story). In its full range of forms, the policy of school choice is variously lauded as an effective desegregation method, a powerful catalyst for reform, and a more equitable, efficient means of organization.

But opponents contend that inferior schools would simply become holding pens for students with special needs or those not accepted elsewhere for any number of reasons. The staunchest resisters of choice view the policy as an effort to undermine public education.

The agenda for some choice advocates is to get government out of the direct provision of public education and to gain public support for private schools, says Richard Elmore, professor of education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

During the Reagan administration, there was a strong push for tuition vouchers that parents could use at either a public or private school. Congressional concerns about diverting public money to private schools stalled that idea.

GENERALLY regarded as a conservative preference, the move toward public funding of private schools has recently gotten a leg up from the other side of the political fence.

Polly Williams, a state representative in Wisconsin and a Democrat, helped pass the first private-school voucher plan. Starting this past September, several hundred low-income children in Milwaukee began attending private schools at state expense.

Last summer, Brookings Institution, a liberal Washington think tank, published a book that sparked widespread debate about school choice. …