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Reagan Panel Avoids Private-School Issue in 'Choice' Plan

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Washington--The President's Commission on Privatization will recommend in its forthcoming report that the federal government adopt policies giving parents more latitude in choosing their children's schools.

But while the panel supports participation by private schools in federal programs, the recommendations it adopted at a meeting this month fall short of urging their inclusion in a proposed system of parental vouchers for distributing federal education funds.

"The school system has clearly failed the nation," the commission's chairman, David F. Linowes, said in an interview last week. "We have to have the courage to seek out alternatives."

"But we were very concerned that nothing we would recommend should tend to weaken public schools," he added.

The commission, which will submit a report to President Reagan in March, is charged with examining the division of responsibilities between the federal government and the private sector and with identifying instances where current government activities could be more effectively performed by private entities.

The panel chose education as one area of study; witnesses at a hearing last month focused almost entirely on issues of choice.

At its Jan. 7 meeting, the commission decided to recommend that the federal government "foster diversity to achieve the nation's full range of educational goals" through its education programs and dissemination of information about choice.

Vouchers For 'Diversity'

The recommendation effectively backs a voucher system for federal education programs by urging the Congress to "adopt policies to increase consumer, that is, parental, choice at the elementary and secondary levels," in the way that Pell Grants and low-cost loans for veterans foster choice at the collegiate level.

It supports payment of federal aid in such areas as remedial and special education directly to parents, who would be allowed to spend the money at schools of their own choosing.

But the commission stopped short of urging inclusion of private schools in voucher plans or specifically endorsing other ideas such as tuition tax credits.

Instead, it approved temporizing language in response to members' concerns that private-school participation could damage public schools, result in segregation, and raise constitutional issues regarding the separation of church and state.

In a separate recommendation dealing with private schools, the commission voted to say: "Education benefits all who receive it. Therefore, private schools should be able to participate in federal programs providing educational choice to parents."

"In supporting educational choice," the statement continues, "the federal government should remain sensitive to retaining values represented by public schools. Although its educational-choice programs should be open to participation by private schools, the full range of rights guaranteed by the Constitution should be protected."

Uncertainty on 'Impact'

The two resolutions should not be construed as either supporting or opposing private-school participation in voucher programs, cautioned Mr. Linowes, who is Boechenstein Professor of Political Economy and Public Policy at the University of Illinois.

"We didn't want to preclude private schools [from federal programs], but we didn't feel qualified to say how they should participate," he said. "We don't know if vouchers would have a bad impact" on public schools.

But several commissioners argued that competition with private schools is the only hope for improving public education. They pushed for stronger language that would have said that "restricting educational choice to the public sector will inevitably limit the effectiveness of market incentives in education."

James T. McIntyre, who headed the Office of Management and Budget during the Carter Administration, raised the strongest objection to such language.

"I don't see competition as the answer to every problem of inefficiency," he said. "If what we are trying to do is to put the public schools out of business, or that would be the result, I'm against it."

"My goal is not to save the public-school system," responded Richard H. Fink, an economist who is president of Citizens for a Sound Economy. "It is to improve education."

The commission also adopted recommendations supporting government efforts to aid disadvantaged students through choice programs and urging the Secretary of Education to use "discretionary resources" to support choice.

In addition, the panel agreed to urge greater business involvement in vocational education, but not to include that statement as a formal recommendation in its report.

Witnesses Comment

At the commission's December hearing, witnesses ranged from the National Education Association's vice president, Keith Geiger, who supported public-school choice programs with qualifications, to Douglas Alexander of Citizens for Educational Freedom, who argued that private schools are superior and that public schools should be "just one choice among many."

William J. Gainer, an analyst for the General Accounting Office, said that track records are mixed for education and training voucher systems in programs serving disadvantaged populations.

For such a program to succeed, he said, participants must have access to information and counseling, disadvantaged students must be given sufficient funding for the extra services they need, and government officials must monitor program quality to prevent fraud and abuse.

"It would be naive to believe that a private-school system without regulation or oversight, other than market forces, ... would provide superior educational services for at-risk youth," Mr. Gainer said.

Although the Education Department has backed tuition tax credits for private schooling and proposed a voucher plan for the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement, used his testimony to praise successful public-school choice programs and urge reforms in school leadership and structure.

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