Bush Endorses Letting Parents Choose Schools : Says There Is ‘National Imperative’ to Expand Selection Programs

Times Staff Writer

President-elect Bush, endorsing an increasingly popular new idea in American education, said Tuesday that it is “a national imperative” to expand so-called “choice” programs that allow parents to select the public schools their children will attend.

A similar endorsement came from President Reagan earlier in the day. He told the same group, the government-sponsored White House Workshop on Choice in Education: “Choice works, and it works with a vengeance.” But those attending were obviously far more excited by the promise of the incoming chief executive, who has pledged to be “the education President.”

Bush described choice of public schools as “perhaps the most single promising” new idea in American education and said that choice programs “give parents back their voices and their proper determining roles in the makeup of children’s education, and they give schools a chance to distinguish themselves from one another.”

Endorsement Welcomed


The President-elect’s pronouncements on choice represented his first formal statement on education since the election campaign. The federal government has no direct role in determining whether a school district offers such options to parents and his endorsement of the idea was an inexpensive way of following up on his campaign pledge. Advocates of choice programs welcomed the endorsement because they believe that it will encourage more school districts to try the idea.

Bush is expected to outline his full education program at a meeting with teachers Jan. 18, two days before his inauguration. He is under great pressure to increase federal spending on education substantially.

Bush, in his remarks Tuesday, did not hint about what he plans to propose next week. Describing the federal role in education as “broader . . . than might immediately be apparent,” Bush promised that “I intend to provide every feasible assistance.”

But he added: “We’re in tough budgetary times.”

In his discussion of choice, Bush said that under traditional systems in which school authorities make attendance decisions, parents cannot shift their children away from ineffective schools. “It’s a system that can perpetuate mediocrity,” he said. “Poor schools have no incentive to improve. Their students are captive clients.”

‘Bad Schools Get Better’

“Almost without exception, wherever choice has been attempted--Minnesota, East Harlem, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and in a hundred other places in between--choice has worked,” Bush went on. " . . . Bad schools get better; good ones get better still. . . . Any school reform that can boast such success deserves our attention, our emphasis, our effort.”

Although most of those invited to the conference by the White House and the Department of Education are ardent supporters of choice, there were notes of caution. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos warned that many still oppose the concept. “We must try to reconcile them with the majority or we will never have peace in the American educational system,” Cavazos said.

Much of the opposition appears to come from school administrators who fear chaos in choice programs and from politicians and minorities who believe that it is a step toward voucher or tuition grant programs for private and parochial school children.

Other words of caution came from educators who insisted that choice programs are of little value if the schools are not of high quality. Seymour Fliegel, a New York City official given much of the credit for the successful East Harlem program, said: “If you have a child who travels a half-hour to go from one lousy school to another lousy school, it doesn’t make sense.”