President Bush has embraced the concept of letting parents choose their children's schools, but many educators are holding the idea at arm's length, voicing fears of a return to segregated classrooms.

Bush spoke out on the idea of letting parents select their children's school during his presidential campaign, picking up a theme begun in the eight-year Reagan administration.The president also told a joint session of Congress in early February, "We must reward excellence and cut through bureaucracy. We must give choice to parents, students, teachers and principals."

"I think `choice' is going to be a big word for 1989, both on the part of the president and the education secretary," said Tim Callahan of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos has pledged loyalty to the issue but readily admits its complexity and controversial nature.

"The word `choice' means many different things to different people," Cavazos told about 250 educators in January. "Some may disagree on the best way to give parents more options and on how choice programs can be used to build better schools.

"But," he said, "choice will be a critical element in education reform for years to come."

President Reagan first gave impetus to the idea of "choice" in the wake of a 1983 report that sounded the first serious alarm about the poor academic achievement of American students and sent educators, administrators and parents scrambling for ways to improve the educational system.

But, Richard Kraft and Paul Deering of the University of Colorado said in an issues paper for the National Association of State Boards of Education, "educational choice has existed as long as there have been social classes, with the wealthy sending their children to private, elite schools, while the children of the poor or middle class were sent to the public school."

The Reagan administration initially wanted to give vouchers to parents so their school-age children could buy an education at any public or private school. But critics were concerned about separation of church and state, while civil rights leaders feared a return to segregated private institutions.

What evolved from Reagan's plan were urban magnet school programs to bring racially and ethnically diverse students together voluntarily based on common educational interests.

Bush would like to expand on the magnet school idea and proposed in his budget for fiscal 1990 to spend $12 million to provide more specialized schools but without the desegregation intent.

The "choice" concept has had sporadic success across the nation.

But Utah, Wisconsin and Mississippi have defeated various choice programs.