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WILL FREE ENTERPRISE WORK IN EDUCATION?

Competition has been touted as one way to improve America's schools. Strong advocates have pushed the "market system" as an impetus for lighting a fire under substandard schools and generating top-notch institutions that vie for the cream of the student crop.

Now, the theory may get a good test.Chris Whittle, the business entrepreneur who raised educational eyebrows with his controversial, ad-pocked Channel One television service to schools, is off on another venture. He proposes spending $2.5 billion-plus to create 200 for-profit schools across America.

Whittle says he'll start the process by gathering an educational "brain trust" to design the schools. These 100 experts will complete their work in time to have 200 schools open by 1996, if the timetable holds.

The concept initially foresees a comprehensive campus at each proposed location, offering preschool child care through 12th grade. Innovation will be the keyword, he says. His schools will not reflect today's norm. By the year 2010, Whittle hopes to have 2 million students enrolled in his schools, paying tuition that will be slightly less than the national average per-child expenditure in public schools - about $5,500 per year at this point.

Voucher advocates would no doubt jump on such a proposal to further their cause. Whittle says he won't push for vouchers, but it certainly couldn't hurt his proposed business if parents in all income brackets had cash in hand to go school-shopping.

Whether the businessman would consider Utah for such a school would be interesting to see. From a business standpoint, Utah, with the lowest per-pupil expenditure in the country, would probably not be an attractive option in a competitive setting.

The concept of for-profit schools competing with the public system and with the traditional church-sponsored private schools is intriguing. Already, many questions are being raised. Whittle's proposal is being liberally dissected in all of the recent major education publications.

Might for-profit schools siphon off the students best able to pay: i.e., the students who traditionally have been the most academically able? That would leave the public system with the burden of educating the most difficult student population. Another point to remember is that when the private students leave the system, so do their parents. Again, it is these parents who tend to be the most active in support of schools.

Taking large numbers out of the public system could, at the same time, give tax- supported schools more money to do their job if the private students actually opted out without taking any tax share with them.

Advertising, which goes hand-in-glove with business, is another concern. The success of Whittle's enterprise, by his own account, would lie in selling educational products, in addition to tuition, in conjunction with his schools. He proposes to sell his methods and his software to any educational body willing to pay his price.

The prospects of hallways where ad posters compete with student art is enough to send shivers down the spines of traditionalists.

The quality of education in a private setting that has no accountability to the taxpaying public could be problematic, critics say. Whittle promises to turn out an improved product, but he would be free to create his own definition of what that means. Unless the Whittle schools chose to accept federal funding, they would be free of the bureaucratic strings at that level. They would not be beholden to local school boards, although Whittle again, vows that they would maintain a close relationship.

In businesses, the fortunes of the market determine buying and selling. Would the quality of education in Whittle schools rise and fall on the whims of the bottom line? How do you retrench financially in a bad year when the "product" is children? Who comes first, stockholders or students?

Free enterprise is what built America. Whether its principles will translate feasibly to education is debatable. The next few years will see a lot of Whittle-watchers keeping close tabs on his progress.