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School choice is a hot new idea but not easy to do

Nov. 6 threatens to be a bad day at the polls for incumbents. But how about the nation's school systems? If a band of angry reformers in Oregon has its way, it could be a very bad day for traditional school systems, school boards, administrators and school unions. The Great Monopoly would be shattered. Parents would have the right to send their children to any school in the state _ even to a private school, taking an annual government tax credit of $2,500 with them. (The average annual cost per pupil in Oregon is nearly $4,000.)

The Educational Choice Initiative is the most radical, far-sweeping challenge to the public-school establishment in the widening debate over increased school choice for parents and students.

The education lobby is sputtering with outrage over the initiative, which was cooked up last spring by a group of Libertarians. Led by the Oregon Education Association, opponents are reportedly pouring $2-million into defeating the measure.

The underfunded proponents have, on their side, a rising wave of public distaste about public-school mediocrity. National polls show support for the principle of school choice has risen from 10 percent to more than 60 percent in the past decade.

But the Oregon measure has begun to flounder in the polls, and possibly for good reason. While it would give parents a lot more freedom in placing their kids, it's re-evoked the old argument about tuition-tax credits supporting religious schools.

What's more, in their rush to write an initiative, the sponsors left a lot of untied strings. They made no provision to pay for busing. Their proposal would allow schools to take gifted kids but reject average, poor or minority students. Many loose ends have been left for a legislature already embroiled in a controversy over equalization of funding between rich and poor school districts.

The Bush administration thinks the Oregon initiative is a neat idea and even sent a curious education mogul, Vice President Dan Quayle, out to campaign for it.

But the nation's pre-eminent school-choice expert, Joe Nathan of University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, says Oregonians would do themselves a favor by voting "no." The measure will do precious little to help poor and working-class families _ the groups that need school choice the most.

Whatever the Oregon outcome, school choice has arrived as a new, salient issue in education-reform movements coast-to-coast. No less an establishment voice than the Brookings Institution recently seemed to endorse it by publishing John Chubb's and Terry Moe's Politics, Markets, and America's Schools _ a plea for a radical free market in schools.

On top of Minnesota's quite successful statewide school-choice experiment, Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Washington and Iowa have enacted some form of statewide school choice. The debate is alive in at least a dozen more states.

In Minnesota, a group of citizens including Nathan and ex-Twin Cities Citizen League director Ted Kolderie, is now debating the idea of breaking up the monopoly hold of existing school districts.

It's one thing, Kolderie says, to tell parents they have choice; it's another to encourage creation of new schools that are truly innovative and effective. The idea is to empower all sorts of "organizing groups" _ administrators, teachers, parents, perhaps a social-service agency _ to start a school and get into "the learning business." Providing they meet civil-rights and quality standards, school districts would be obliged to contract with them.

The emerging Minnesota model, true to the state's culture, stays close to public schools. Other models veer to competing private schools. The moral of Oregon's blunt instrument initiative is that workable alternatives are going to take a lot more careful crafting.

Washington Post Writers Group