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Finn: Valid Goals, If Little Data, Undergird 'Choice'

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Washington--To affect student achievement significantly, an educational-choice program must include private schools, suggests the Education Department's most detailed defense to date of its Chapter 1 voucher bill and the principle of parental choice.

The department's analysis concedes that there is no conclusive evidence that any known voucher plan has had a beneficial educational effect.

Nevertheless, the analysis says, the policy goals associated with choice and the department's voucher bill--promoting equity, competition among schools, parental involvement, and school-level decisionmaking--are worthwhile regardless of whether the plan would have a demonstrable impact on student achievement.

Submitted as Testimony

The 33-page analysis was submitted by Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary of educational research and improvement, as written testimony late last month to the Senate intergovernmental-relations subcommittee, which recently held a hearing on the issue. The testimony includes statistical charts and tables with demographic and socio-economic data on private-school enrollments and a bibliography on choice.

Congressional Republicans have introduced Reagan Administration-drafted legislation that would allow low-income parents to receive a Chapter 1 remedial-education voucher redeemable at a public or private school.

The voucher, which would equal a district's current per-pupil expenditure for Chapter 1 aid, would be worth an average of about $600 but could exceed $1,000 in some states.

Critics say the voucher bill would undermine the $3.7-billion Chapter 1 program, increase racial and economic segregation, and illegally aid religious schools.

Alum Rock Experiment

"When parents actively choose a school, their children did not score higher (or lower) on reading-achievement tests as a result of the choice," Mr. Finn wrote in discussing the results of the only major voucher experiment--in the Alum Rock, Calif., school district during the 1970's. The federally supported Alum Rock experiment excluded private schools.

Citing an evaluation by the Rand Corporation, he added: "This study suggests that if choice and diversity are desirable in and of themselves, they can be pursued without hurting student achievement. Beyond that, the results are mostly inconclusive or attitudinal, most likely because of the limitation of the demonstration itself."

Private Schools Barred

Proposed voucher plans in Minnesota and Tennessee, a "family-option'' plan enacted in South Dakota, and a voucher program for dropouts in Colorado all bar private-school participation.

But Mr. Finn contended that parents, particularly those from low-income groups, must have the same opportunity as wealthier families to choose private schools, for two reasons. The first, he said, is the need for equality of opportunity, "one of the most fundamental principles of democracy."

The second, he asserted, is research, including studies by Andrew Greeley and James S. Coleman, reporting that Catholic schools outperform their public counterparts.

"Therefore, if poor children are afforded more opportunities to attend private schools," said Mr. Finn, "they might enjoy an increase in achievement without detrimental societal or individual effects. While the research is not conclusive, it is at least suggestive."

Research Agenda

Mr. Finn said the Education Department intends to support further research to seek answers to questions relating to choice.

Thus far, he said, "experimentally and non-experimentally designed research conducted on choice is limited in several ways": Most of the data refers to attitudes and not achievement; there is little emprirical evidence; previous studies have had technical flaws, and there have been few longitudinal studies relating to choice.

Among the basic issues the department will probe are: the effects of a voucher program that permits private- and public-school participation; the effects of vouchers on the academic attainment of students who "have no choice"; the effects of various choice policies; and the effect on racial balance of a "comprehensive" voucher plan.--jh

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