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STATE EDUCATION Commissioner Thomas Sobol's proposal for school choice is getting most of the headlines. But it's the rest of his school reform plan that holds real promise for improving the state's public educational system.

And make no mistake, improving public education -- not finding ways to transfer the brightest and most advantaged students to private schools -- must remain the goal. That is the best means of assuring that all children have the chance to become taxpaying workers as well as productive citizens capable of making choices in a democracy.

To make sure New York State's public schools better fulfill that mission, Sobol and the Board of Regents are refining a set of broad new goals that would drastically change the way schools function.

In essence the plan would deregulate education. Schools would have to meet goals set by the state, but they would have great latitude in determining how to do it.

It is a departure from the current system, which seems to run almost on inertia. But who can argue that change isn't needed, given test scores and the justified complaints of business leaders who find they must re-educate new hires?

Transferring decision-making from centralized bureaucrats to the people who work with students on a daily basis certainly makes sense. But equally important is an accountability system that measures relevant achievement.

Teachers don't always like being held accountable. They often insist that education depends on so many variables that their success can't fairly be pegged to that of students.

But without a way to measure results, the freedom to experiment will be of little help toward Sobol's goal: narrowing the gap between high and low achievers while simultaneously lifting the entire system.

That is something officials must remain firm on as they work with teachers who may relish the new freedoms but resist the measures of success.

Of course, accountability must extend to entire schools, as well. That realization underscores a Sobol proposal to let students in failing schools take state vouchers and transfer to other public or private schools as one aspect of a "choice" program.

The concept of choice of a specialized school based on the student's interest already operates within many districts in the state. Buffalo's magnet schools are an example of how successful such a system can be.

But choice cannot become a method for those with the means to escape schools in property-poor districts, taking state aid with them to more affluent schools and leaving behind those without the transportation or socialization skills needed for a move.

Such a free-market free-for-all will work no better in education than it does in the retail sector, where affluent areas attract modern stores with wider selections and lower prices while the poor are left to shop at corner ripoff markets. We cannot abandon schools to the same "free-market" fate.

Sobol's proposal would limit vouchers to students in schools that have been decertified by the state after all other attempts at improvement have failed. He is right that students in such schools should not be held captive to a subpar education. Choice in that instance is undeniably justified.

But the choice should be limited to other public schools. Society cannot afford to drain support from the public schools by paying students to attend private schools, even in that limited circumstance. Sobol and the regents should drop that aspect of any "choice" program.

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