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Study Sets Stage for Debate On New Jersey 'Choice' Bill

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Parental choice "may be an onrushing train" in public education, but those "who wish to climb aboard" should do so only after careful deliberation, a study commissioned by New Jersey's governor cautions.

The report, released in December by Commissioner of Education Saul A. Cooperman, is expected to lay the groundwork for parental-choice legislation tailored to meet the needs of the state's families.

Gov. Thomas H. Kean called for the study in his 1988 State of the State Message. It was prepared by Frank J. Esposito, a vice president of Kean College.

"This report provides a conceptual framework in order to open up a statewide discussion of the potential of public-school choice," said Mr. Esposito.

Mr. Cooperman said his office this month will hold the first of 21 public hearings on the report. The state chief will make a recommendation to the Governor on the issue after the hearings are completed in mid-March.

Governor Kean has already ruled out two choice options. The report states that he will not consider tuition tax credits or cash vouchers for parents who wish to send their children to private schools.

The study, "Public-School Choice: National Trends and Initiatives," provides an overview of existing state- and district-level programs, noting some of their benefits and drawbacks.

"Two central points stood out," Mr. Esposito wrote. "Choice programs are most effective when tailored to the needs of the individual communities, and American choice programs are highly diverse in structure and content."

According to the report, 23 states have either adopted or are considering some form of educational choice.

Forty states have at least one community that permits school choice within district boundaries, it found, including the Montclair system in New Jersey.

Mr. Esposito said that despite the diversity of such programs, nearly all seemed to share the following positive characteristics:

An expansion of the role of parents and teachers;

The creation of smaller schools;

Increased opportunities for learning for high-risk students, and

Higher rates of enrollment in colleges, universities, and postsecondary vocational-technical schools.

However, several drawbacks were also found in common, the report states.

Poor and single parents involved in choice programs, it notes, often find it difficult to make informed decisions or participate in school affairs.

Choice programs also increase the need for student transportation,which complicates bus schedules and adds to districts' costs, according to Mr. Esposito.

In addition, he found, programs based on academic specializations at specific schools often require added funding for retraining teachers and staff.

And, in general, the complications of coordinating student choices, transportation, and funding needs often dramatically increase the number of administrative chores, the report found.

Spokesmen for several state education organizations said they would withhold comment on the report until they had adequate time to review it.

"We have to find out exactly what the Governor means by 'choice,"' said Donald Tarr of the New Jersey Education Association. "He hasn't really spelled that out yet."

He said the union was developing recommendations on the issue and would present them to Mr. Cooperman during the public hearings.

Copies of the choice report can be obtained by writing to: Office of Forms and Publications, 225 West State St., Trenton, N.J. 08625.

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