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Bush Expected to Endorse Parental Choice of Schools

Times Staff Writer

The incoming Administration of President-elect George Bush appears close to endorsing an innovative idea in American education that would curb the traditional authority of local officials to assign pupils to public schools and give parents wide freedom to decide which schools their children would attend.

Some educators believe that widespread implementation of such a program--already adopted in Minnesota--would transform and improve American education radically by forcing public schools to compete against each other for pupils on the basis of quality.

The idea, known as “choice,” is the most concrete indication thus far of how Bush will seek to redeem his campaign pledge to become “the education President.” It is particularly attractive for a conservative chief executive facing a severe budget crunch because embracing choice would be considered a bold stroke, yet presumably would involve no federal dollars and require no direct federal intervention.

Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, who will remain at his post in the Bush Administration, has asked prominent educators, state education officials and union leaders to meet at the White House next Tuesday to discuss the new concept, according to those invited.

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The closed session will prepare the way for the secretary’s promised announcement on Jan. 18, two days before the Bush inauguration, of the new Administration’s educational program. Most educators expect an endorsement of choice to play a prominent part.

“If you wanted to make a difference as President,” said John E. Chubb of the Brookings Institution, “that is what you would be talking about.”

Washington now has no authority to impose the choice system on the local school districts which control the nation’s public schools. But an endorsement by Bush, if made clearly and dramatically, would represent an enormous push behind a new idea that is becoming fashionable in many educational circles.

An endorsement would hardly represent a radical departure for Bush. During the election campaign, his staff issued an education policy statement which said that “George Bush believes parents should be able to choose which public schools their children attend.” The statement cited the Minnesota experiment and a program of choice in East Harlem in New York as noteworthy examples of what Bush had in mind.

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This support of choice, however, was not an issue and attracted little attention during the campaign.

See Dramatic Difference

Some analysts like Chubb, who will attend the Tuesday meeting with Cavazos, believe that choice may make a dramatic difference in the quality of American education. Chubb has just completed a massive study of American high schools with Prof. Terry M. Moe of Stanford University.

The study’s findings demonstrate that the quality of a school makes an enormous difference in the educational achievement of children of similar background and intelligence, he said in an interview.

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The most effective schools, according to Chubb, are those free of control of central bureaucracies and unions and run by strong principals who involve teachers in decisions. But most large school systems do not allow such schools. Competition, he went on, would encourage them.

“Choice,” he said, “breaks the monopoly.”

Others are more wary of the new idea, though few are openly hostile. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who also plans to attend the meeting with Cavazos, said: “I think choice potentially could be a very positive thing. But the idea that it can solve everything is nonsense. For years we had many manufacturers making many automobiles in this country and we had an awful lot of lemons.”

State education officials from Minnesota, where the most widespread experiment in the country is being conducted, plan to attend the Tuesday meeting with Cavazos. They will surely be questioned closely about what they are doing.

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Under the Minnesota program, which began this school year, a parent--within some limits--may enroll a child in any public elementary and high school in the state. The state’s educational subsidy--between $2,500 and $4,000 a year per pupil--goes to the school in which the child enrolls. In theory, a poorly run school could eventually be depleted of pupils and shut down; a well-run school could prosper.

There are limits: Parents must pay for the transportation of a child to the boundaries of the new school district. Small schools are exempt this year though they take part in the program next year. A school can declare that it is too full to accept more pupils. Schools under court desegregation orders must retain their racial balances.

The extent of choice, nevertheless, still strikes many educators as daring.

There is some suspicion of choice and of the Minnesota program because, at least on the surface, they seem to resemble longtime proposals by far-right organizations and others for voucher or tax credit systems that would finance the transfer of pupils from public to private schools.

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“Where we begin to be leery,” said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Assn., “is when people start using choice as a euphemism for vouchers and tax credits. It could be a way to open the door to use public funds to support private schools. Taking the money from public schools does not solve the issue. You are depleting the funds for schools that are already in trouble.”

The Minnesota open enrollment system will not subsidize the transfer of a pupil from a public to a private school. Moreover, Minnesota, a state with a long liberal tradition, is run by Democratic Gov. Rudy Perpich who says that he was attracted to the idea not out of ideology but out of frustration over his inability to transfer his own children when he was a young politician 20 years ago.

Many politicians and educators believe that there is a crisis in American education--with a 25% school dropout rate and perhaps 20 million adult illiterates. While a consensus seems to feel that the Bush Administration must restore many of the cuts made by the Reagan Administration in the federal education budget and expand spending on such programs as Head Start, there also is a strong belief that some new ideas may be needed to shake up American education.

Choice is the idea now attracting the most attention, an idea that suddenly blossomed in the last two years.

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“I don’t know how it happened,” Chubb said. “But I’m pleased. When I first started, I was looked on as a lunatic. Now I wouldn’t call it mainstream, but there’s an awful lot of enthusiasm for the idea.”


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