Ten years ago, East Harlem was a school district ranked at the bottom. Only 15 percent of the students could read at their grade level, and teachers transferred out of the district at the first opportunity.

Today, 65 percent of the students are reading at their grade level and teachers want into East Harlem schools.In St. Louis, students use 6-year-old textbooks and many school buildings have badly deteriorated in the past five years. At the same time the school district transports some suburban white children to and from their inner city schools by taxi.

Both East Harlem and St. Louis are part of the growing movement in public education alternatives called "choice," under which districts provide various programs and allow parents to choose the programs that best suit their children's needs.

Joe Nathan, Wayzata, Minn., the educator who coordinated the National Governors Association report on education, "Time for Results: The Governors' 1991 Report on Education," used East Harlem, St. Louis and other examples in a National PTA convention workshop Tuesday to show that allowing choice among schools can be a stunning success or dismal failure.

Choices in education, like all choices, can be good and bad, Nathan said.

The 15 states that have legally embraced or are considering adopting the choices-in-education concept use a variety of methods. In Nathan's national summary passed out to the PTA delegates, he reported that California passed a law two years ago that permits families to send elementary students to public schools in the districts where the families live or work, while Virginia has established several regional magnet programs emphasizing math and science.

Nathan said his state, Minnesota, which has probably had more discussions on alternative public education than any other state, is using several options. Minnesota has open enrollment, allowing students to travel across district lines to the schools they want.

Another option allows 11th- and 12th-grade students to attend college or vocational schools - full or part time - for free while still in high school. State and local money up to $3,000 follows the student to the college or vocational school, he said.

Contrary to its opponents' fears, this option hasn't gutted the high schools of their brightest students; only 8 percent of high school students have chosen this route, Nathan said.

It has, however, drawn dropouts back into the educational system. "Some who have dropped out were gifted kids who were bored stiff in high school," he said.

Also, students who were using afternoons on work release for jobs at local fast-food restaurants have opt-ed to attend vocational schools in the afternoon. "They say that they know working at McDonald's is a dead-end job, but they can't stand staying in high school all day," Nathan said.

But when given a choice to go to a vocational program, they do that so they can obtain marketable skills, he said.

Acknowledging the growing push for public education choices, Wes Apker, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said the choices concept has numerous issues that need to be addressed, including how much choice will be allowed and whether it be limited to a school district or individual school.

Public education choices shouldn't negatively affect desegregation, he said. It also needs public transportation to make it work.

"If you don't supply public transportation, choice becomes the vehicle for affluent parents who can afford to take their children to the school of their choice and the poor has no choice, and that, in my view, is no choice," Apker said.

School districts with alternative choices need clear-cut policies on waiting lists, a common core curriculum, public information written in clear, concise language easily understood by the public and a required number of hours that parents must spend helping in the school, Apker said.

He also said school districts moving to open enrollment and public choices need to find ways to work with the fears of teachers and administrators and to prevent "athletic proselytizing" of student athletes by coaches.