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Hawkins Hits Choice at Minnesota Hearing

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St Paul, Minn--Warning that the movement to allow parents greater choice among public schools could "sidetrack" efforts to improve basic education, a leading Democratic lawmaker served notice last week that the Bush Administration may face tough sledding in its efforts to implement one of the leading items on its education agenda.

"I view choice as a diversion away from programs that have already succeeded," said Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California, at a special hearing of the House Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education that he convened here last week.

Mr. Hawkins, who is also chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, is emerging as one of the leading spokesmen for critics of parental choice, which President Bush has called a "national imperative."

The hearing, which was held in the only state that has enacted a mandatory open-enrollment law, is part of an effort by the committee to compile a report on the possible negative effects of choice as a school-improvement mechanism.

Committee aides have said Representative Hawkins believes that choice advocates have painted an overly positive picture of the effects of choice and that its negative aspects also need to be aired.

The hearing last week provided a further glimpse of the battle lines that are likely to be drawn as parental choice becomes a national issue under the Bush Administration.

'Not Sure' of Intent

"We're not sure" what the Bush Administration means by "choice" or what it intends for the federal government's role to be, Representative Hawkins said last week.

[At a Feb. 14 hearing in Washington on the Education Department's budget, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos agreed to provide a written policy statement of the Administration's policy on parental choice to the Education and Labor Committee.]

The Democratic Congressman expressed fears that the Bush Administration would use its advocacy of choice to justify cuts in federal education programs. He voiced particular concern about the implementation and funding of the Hawkins-Stafford School Improvement Act.

The hearing provided a forum for several community activists who contend that Minnesota's open-enrollment law will harm education for minority students.

Echoing their concerns that open enrollment would drain students and resources from inner-city schools, Mr. Hawkins said that "most of the children left behind will be at risk."

Saying that choice would simply divide school systems into "good and bad schools," the committee chairman commented: "I don't see how the better schools are going to improve either."

Several witnesses said that choice was "irrelevant" in their communities and that minority children needed better neighborhood schools--schools as good as any in the district.

"I don't think that just transporting students around is education,'' Representative Hawkins said.

At one point, Representative Harris W. Fawell, Republican of Illinois, engaged in a spirited debate with Mr. Hawkins about the significance of a choice program in New York City's East Harlem neighborhood that has been cited many times as a example of what choice can produce.

"I can take you to 40 other good black schools that are not choice schools," the chairman asserted. "Mere choice alone won't do it."

Ruth Randall, commissioner of education in Minnesota, offered a de8tailed defense of the state's choice laws, saying they had been fashioned both to support desegregation efforts and challenge school districts to improve.

Testimony of Backers

The choice provisions, she said, are clearly beneficial to students ''at risk of failure [due to the] family or social situation in which they are growing up."

Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota, who has been promoting choice in his capacity as chairman of the Education Commission of the States, declined an invitation to testify before the subcommittee. Instead, travelled to Des Moines to brief Iowa lawmakers on his state's open-enrollment law, which they have used as a model for a similar plan they are considering this year.

Representative Fred Grandy, Republican of Iowa, predicted at the St. Paul hearing that the open-enrollment bill would win passage in his state this year.

Speaking of the equity concerns raised by some of the hearing's witnesses, Mr. Grandy said that "you have to accept that some risks will be built in."

Although the three Republican committee members present at the hearing appeared to favor the choice concept, Representative William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, the panel's ranking Republican, expressed reservations about it at last week's budget hearing in Washington.

Staff writer William Snider and Washington editor Julie A. Miller contributed to this report.

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