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At Senate Hearing, Advocates Promote Benefits of 'Choice'

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Washington--Some of the leading proponents of "choice" in education told a Senate panel last week that increased competition in the educational marketplace would result in better schools and more satisfied parents, students, and teachers.

But an official of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, called vouchers, a major instrument for promoting choice, "a cruel hoax on America's schoolchildren and their parents."

The witness list included a top Education Department official, Chester E. Finn Jr.; a consultant to the National Governors Association's task force on choice, Joseph Nathan; school officials who are overseeing "open-enrollment" plans; and other prominent advocates of voucher and alternative-education plans.

They appeared before the Senate subcommittee on intergovernmental relations, which oversees federal-state relations and is chaired by Senator Dave Durenberger, Republican of Minnesota. That state has recently enacted a limited open-enrollment plan that permits 11th- and 12th-grade students to take college courses with tuition paid by per-pupil state foundation aid.

Senator Durenberger noted that the hearing did not address any particular legislation but was intended "to set a framework for a larger issue."

Beginning with his first policy address, in March, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has declared that increasing "choice" is one of his main goals. According to Mr. Finn, the department will send a Chapter 1 voucher bill to Capitol Hill "in a very short period of time."

Voucher Benefits

Mr. Finn, the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, told the panel that vouchers would benefit education in at least four significant ways.

They would, he said, promote "social justice" by giving more educational options to the inner-city poor, who are now unable to "vote with their feet" by moving to the suburbs and better schools; improve the quality of schools through increased competition; "strengthen the role of the family" in the educational process; and allow schools "to take more responsibility for their own performance, ... stemming the tide toward centralization" in educational decisionmaking.

He said there is "a limited but valuable federal role" in promoting choice, and he listed the ways the government is supporting it--through research, the upcoming voucher bill, and grants from the Secretary's discretionary fund to underwrite demonstration projects.

Except for remarks by Roxanne Bradshaw, secretary-treasurer of the nea, and a pair of Brookings Institution researchers, all of the testimony presented to the committee supported Mr. Finn's contentions.

Ms. Bradshaw asserted that vouchers would not improve schools. "As a nation," she said, "we would be far better served by providing sufficient resources to those programs that do work, like Chapter 1, than risking the futures of hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged children."

The $3.7-billion Chapter 1 program, the largest federal precollegiate-aid effort, provides nearly 5 million public- and private-school students with remedial education.

The Brookings researchers, John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, argued that increased choice alone would not improve schools, because it would fail to address other impediments to change, such as government regulations and teachers' collective-bargaining agreements.

Supporters Respond

But Mr. Nathan, a leading advocate of choice and a consultant on the issue to the governors' task force, contended that "a careful examination of history shows that expanding choice among schools can produce greater parental satisfaction, increased student learning, and higher morale among educators."

Moreover, choice does not necessarily imply a voucher program, John A. Murphy, superintendent of schools in Prince George's County, Md., testified.

Because of the increase of single-parent families and working mothers, the neighborhood school is an increasingly obsolete institution, he said. His district, outside Washington, permits students to attend "workplace schools" that are near their parents' work sites. The schools serve students from throughout the county in grades 1-6 and are open from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M.

Vouchers also could mitigate the acute educational problems of the inner city, said another witness, Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

Citing a list of what he termed successful inner-city private and sectarian schools created because of disillusionment over the public-education system, Mr. Woodson said, "We must design public policy to extend the option of quality education to low-income parents."

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