You're going to be hearing more and more about "choice" in education during the next months and years -- and not just from the political conservatives who have been pushing vouchers and tuition tax credits for the past decade and longer.

The new choice advocates, whose voices are changing the climate of the education debate, are not the conservative ideologues but ordinary men and women -- often black and poor -- who have given up on an educational system they are convinced has given up on their children.

They are people like Polly Williams, the Wisconsin state legislator, who has pushed through a voucher plan under which, starting this fall, 1,000 Milwaukee youngsters can attend any private nonsectarian school of their choosing, with the state paying up to $2,500 in tuition costs; or Lawrence Patrick, the Detroit school board president, who is pushing a plan that will combine Milwaukee-like choice with Chicago-like community control of public schools.

Williams and Patrick are black, and it matters. As long as white conservatives were the driving force behind vouchers, tax credits and other choice mechanisms, the mostly liberal education establishment found it easy to discredit them as not really interested in the education of poor children but only in their own arcane doctrines.

No such charge can stick against Polly Williams, an inner-city single mother who twice headed Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in Wisconsin. Her interest, she insists, is not in undermining public schools but in educating poor black children. They aren't being educated now, she says, because the school hierarchy has been more interested in perpetuating its own power and in promoting racial integration.

Like Patrick, her goal is not to empty the public schools but to force them to improve.

Choice, of course, embraces far more than tuition payments and community control. Indeed, it may be misleading to subsume under the single heading of "choice" the myriad plans that are either being developed or are already in place in an effort to make the public schools better.

In Chicago, choice means neighborhood school boards, complete with the power to hire and fire teachers and principals, as a means of freeing local schools from the stultifying distance and detachment of "downtown." In Minnesota, it means giving parents the right to send their children to any public school -- even across district lines. In New York, it means freeing parents to design their own education programs. In East Harlem, for instance, huge schools have been transformed into a series of smaller ones which, while housed in a common building, employ their own distinctive approaches to organization and teaching.

The fascinating thing about all these schemes is how little they are involved with race. For a full generation following the 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision, the civil rights establishment has focused on racial integration. The theory has been that the best way of giving black children an equal education is to get them into the same schools and classrooms as white children.

It has worked reasonably well in smaller school districts, where, for instance, two segregated and underfunded high school could be merged into one. It has not worked well in the larger cities, where racial housing patterns have made integration achievable only by wide-scale busing and, more recently, magnet schools designed to attract white students.

It is true that the magnet schools have generally been both superior and integrated. But it is also true that the educational needs of the majority of black children have been sacrificed to the efforts to attract white children.

As Williams put it, for example, Milwaukee's desegregation plan principally benefited whites drawn to the magnet schools and black students who were either lucky enough to be included or whose parents were willing to "put their babies on the bus at 5:30 in the morning and not see them again until 6:30 in the evening."

She wants better opportunities for all children. But despite her success in the state legislature, her battle for choice is far from over. A suit against the plan, filed by a coalition including teachers, administrators and the president of the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP is now before the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Interestingly, while it speaks of uniformity and standards and authority, the suit is virtually silent on the question of instructional quality. As Elizabeth Kristol, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, noted in The Post {op-ed, June 22}:

"Not once in the petition are the relative merits of the Milwaukee public and private schools assessed in terms of the education or educational climate they offer children. There is no mention of courses of study, rates of graduation, reading scores, school safety, or the presence or absence of drug use. In short, the petition opposing the parental choice program does not touch a single issue that a parent of a school-age child cares about."

What Williams, Patrick and a growing band of choice activists care about is quality education for their children. And unless I misread the mood of millions of frustrated black parents, they are going to find an awful lot of support.