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Family Role in Education Policy Debated

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Washington--Allowing parents and teachers to make the decisions about how children are educated may be one of the best approaches to achieving educational reform in the United States, according to education experts who spoke at a conference here last week.

But providing parents and educators with the means of making those decisions also raises "a list" of troubling questions that must be answered before making changes in public policy, the speakers said.

"Such a list must include questions of equity and social justice--what impact would choice systems have on racial and socioeconomic isolation? Would they increase or diminish access for poor and minority students?" said Denis P. Doyle, director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

The Washington-based institute jointly sponsored the conference with the Sequoia Institute, a research organization in Sacramento, Calif., to promote a discussion of "family choice in education." The discussion was based on 10 papers commissioned by the Sequoia Institute and the National Institute of Education and presented at the conference.

Answering the Questions

Providing parents with more opportunity to choose the kind of education they would like for their children would improve public education, authors of the papers agreed.

That choice would give parents the ability to "match" their children with more appropriate types of education, according to Richard J. Murnane, an associate professor of economics at Harvard University, and Mary Anne Raywid, a member of the department of administration and policy studies at Hofstra University.

"Students may have differing capabilities for learning under particular curricula and teaching styles," Mr. Murnane wrote in his paper, ''Family Choice in Public Education: Possibilities and Limitations." ''Allowing families to choose among alternative programs with clearly defined curricula and known teaching staffs may facilitate the matching of student interests and capabilities with program characteristics and thereby stimulate effort and cooperation," he continued.

A Justice Issue

The speakers outlined various methods for providing parents with more choice in education, but the discussion focused on vouchers, a plan that would give parents the opportunity to choose the school their children attend.

Joe Nathan, a former assistant principal in the St. Paul, Minn., public-school system and the author of Free To Teach: Achieving Equity and Excellence in Schools, commented that if someone had told him a few years ago that he would support voucher proposals, he "would not have believed it."

But Mr. Nathan, who also presented a paper at the conference, told participants that he is convinced "choice" must be part of the "American guarantee."

"We need to ask ourselves about justice," he said. "Is justice for all in this country? Is choice for all? Or is it for 'just us,' just us, the people who are able to afford to live in affluent areas?"

But Mr. Nathan also cautioned the group that it is critically important that the "details" of providing parents with more opportunities for choice in educating their children be worked out.

Both Mr. Nathan and Chester E. Finn, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, were critical of school administrators who have not been responsive to the differing educational needs of students.

Administrators are skeptical of the idea that there could be many more effective school programs because they see them as rarities, Mr. Finn asserted.

"To policymakers, [they] are like truffles," he explained. "They are marvelous when you find them, but you can't grow them. And if you are trying to feed a city, or a nation, or a state, a diet of truffles is unreliable. Better you should plant something that you know you can cultivate--like, maybe, potatoes."

Choice for Teachers

Jessica Shaten, founder of Math Unlimited Minnesota, a nonprofit resource center in St. Paul, reminded participants that when they talk about choice in education, they must consider teachers.

She advocates a system, she said, in which teachers would become the "sellers" of education. Schools would form around professional partnerships developed by teachers that are similar to those of doctors and lawyers. "The teachers can bring about change," she said.

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