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Magnet Schools: The New Hope for Voluntary Desegregation

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For much of the past few years, reflecting general concerns about the quality of public schooling, discussions of magnet schools have centered on their potential for providing intensive instruction in such subjects as science and mathematics, serving as models of effectiveness, and increasing family choice within the public system.

But in recent weeks, settlements in cases involving Bakersfield, Calif., and the Ohio cities of Lima and Cincinnati have once again directed attention to these specialty schools as they were originally conceived—as tools for desegregation.

The three negotiated settlements share one common element: They do not require the mandatory cross-district reassignment of students, depending instead on voluntary measures for desegregation. Chief among those measures in each case is the establishment of specialty schools—characterized by theme-oriented curricula and voluntary-enrollment policies—that are intended to draw a diverse group of students from all over the district, thus, the planners hope, alleviating racial imbalances in neighborhood schools as well.

Despite periodic complaints (usually from principals of nonmagnets) that magnet schools are elitist and skim off the best students, the educational value of the magnet concept is generally accepted, according to researchers and other observers, particularly where planners take pains to make the specialty schools inclusive and of service to other schools in the district. But their utility as the sole tool for desegregation remains a matter of considerable debate. Civil-rights activists and many scholars have long held that voluntary measures alone cannot effect a significant degree of desegregation in most school districts. And if "significant" is construed as meaning approximate racial balance in every school building, there was ample evidence to back up their position.

"Two years ago, it [voluntary desegregation] was supposed to have been kind of a dead letter," says Mark A. Smylie, a research associate at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Public Policy Studies and author of a 1982 study of desegregation techniques. "There was good consensus out there as to what works and what doesn't work."

The available research, case studies, and interviews with scholars who have examined desegregation suggest that if the goal is approximate racial balance in every school building in a district, voluntary techniques alone will not succeed; researchers have identified no district that has accomplished this. But the evidence also indicates that magnets can be "a powerful tool," depending on a number of factors, including the size and racial composition of the school district, the themes and policies of the alternative schools, and such intangibles as district leadership.

"In some situations, at least initially, I think you can get some improvement in the desegregation picture through voluntary techniques,'' says Eugene C. Royster, an education professor at the University of Rochester and principal author of two 1979 studies of magnet schools. "But in general, I would say the evidence seems to indicate that voluntary techniques alone, without some type of mandatory backup system, do not provide a significant degree of desegregation."

The U.S. Justice Department, however, "continues to believe that school systems can be desegregated by voluntary means that eliminate racial isolation and improve education programs," according to a statement released by Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds at the time of the Bakersfield settlement.

The department's civil-rights division did not respond to repeated attempts over the past two weeks to obtain, from Mr. Reynolds or his aides, elaboration on its position and comments on research findings.

New Hypotheses

Many scholars, while not endorsing the Justice Department's position, are now re-examining the evidence and hypothesizing that voluntary methods can work under a broader range of conditions than they previously thought.

See related story on this page.

Two of the most important factors to consider, according to researchers, are how much desegregation is enough and whether the threat of mandatory reassignment is needed to make magnets "magnetic." The recent settlements illustrate different approaches to these basic questions.

The Cincinnati plan, negotiated by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, calls for a districtwide reduction of racial isolation, as measured on a scale known as the Taeuber Index; it permits substantial variation in the racial composition of individual schools, so long as the districtwide score remains at a specified level. The agreement stipulates that the courts may enforce the contract by ordering mandatory measures if the numerical goal is not attained within seven years through voluntary transfers.

In contrast, the Bakersfield and Lima settlements, negotiated by the Justice Department, suggest that the racial composition of each school roughly reflect the districtwide enrollments, within a range of 15 percentage points for Lima and 20 points for Bakersfield, at the end of three years. But the agreements do not require strict adherence to these relatively ambitious goals, stipulating only that the districts make good-faith efforts to reach them.

Research Findings

Although magnet schools have attracted the attention of researchers since their inception in the mid-1960's, there have been few empirical nationwide studies that directly address their potential for desegregation.

The most recent and comprehensive of these was completed last fall by James H. Lowry & Associates and Abt Associates Inc., working under contract to the U.S. Education Department.

In examining 1,019 magnet schools in 138 urban districts nationwide, the Lowry/Abt researchers found that 40 percent of the districts that developed magnets for the purpose of aiding districtwide desegregation "do have positive results."

"Complete desegregation is not generally accomplished in these districts, but successful use of magnets has reduced the percentage of students in racially isolated schools from an average of 60 percent to less than 30 percent," says a report on the study. "The districts showing the most progress in districtwide desegregation using magnets employ a variety of methods both voluntary and involuntary, as part of a total desegregation plan, including pairing, rezoning, two-way busing and mandatory assignment."

The district in the Lowry/Abt study that was most successful with magnets, the researchers found, still was unable to desegregate all its schools. Identified fictitiously as "Foundry City" in the study, the district is located in the Northeastern U.S. and is 47 percent black. It relies almost totally on 21 magnets to comply with a federal desegregation order. "Foundry City nearly succeeds in this attempt," the study says. "It leaves about 20 percent of its 47,757 students racially isolated, but this is a tremendous gain relative to perhaps 60 percent isolation a decade ago."

Variations in Emphasis

The Lowry/Abt researchers selected a nationally representative sample of 15 school districts for closer examination. Seven developed their magnets with districtwide desegregation objectives in mind; two placed "considerable emphasis" on magnets but also employed mandatory desegregation techniques such as busing, pairing, and rezoning; and the remaining six used magnets "as a smaller part of their desegregation plan."

The study found that seven of the 15 districts attained "high levels of systemwide desegregation." Of these, two placed a very high emphasis on magnets as a component in their desegregation plan, two a moderate emphasis, and three a low emphasis. These last three ranked as the most successful in desegregating their schools. And two of them relied mainly on mandatory desegregation methods such as busing.

The study also found that of the eight districts that attained a low level of systemwide desegregation, four placed a high emphasis on magnets.

Nevertheless, the study concluded that "systems can desegregate quite comprehensively by relying heavily on magnets or by other means."

"The best or highest desegregation level was attained in seven systems that used a combination of tools, including magnets," the researchers said. "In these districts, pairing, rezoning, two-way busing, and mandatory assignments are [reinforced] in one sense and eased by magnets in another sense."

Mandatory Measures

Those findings are generally consistent with a 1982 study conducted by Mr. Smylie of Vanderbilt University. That analysis of enrollment data from 49 large school districts using a variety of techniques for desegregation found that mandatory reassignments were more likely than voluntary measures to reduce the number of racially identifiable minority schools (those enrolling 90 percent or more from minority groups). In some of the districts studied, the number of racially isolated schools actually increased under voluntary desegregation plans.

In districts with mandatory plans, the results showed, individual schools were also far more likely to reflect the racial composition of the district as a whole. And, Mr. Smylie found, districts using mandatory plans tended to maintain higher levels of desegregation over time than did districts using voluntary techniques alone.

Research in the late 1970's, also conducted under the auspices of Abt Associates, reached similar conclusions. According to Christine Rossell, one of the investigators for that project, that study found that voluntary techniques alone are relatively ineffective in desegregating districts in which members of minority groups make up more than 30 percent of the student population.

Ms. Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University, now points out, however, that her earlier work for Abt covered only the first two years of desegregation in the 18 districts studied. She now believes that voluntary programs may, by stemming "white flight," provide more stability and a greater degree of desegregation over the long term. She has received a grant from the National Institute of Education to test that hypothesis.

"No one has studied whether that continuation of decline [in a district's white student population] makes voluntary plans more competitive after eight or 10 years," she says. "No one has looked at the long-term impact. So when they say magnets can't do it, all you can say is, in the first couple of years they won't be as effective as a mandatory plan."

Importance of 'Context'

A number of researchers mention "context" as one of the most important determinants of a voluntary program's success.

"If you put it in terms of magnet schools and voluntary selection by itself achieving full desegregation, I'm not sure," says Marsha Levine, co-author of a paper last year on the subject for the American Enterprise Institute. "I think there's reason to believe that magnet schools can be successful, but I think it probably depends upon a whole set of preconditions and history that determine whether they will be effective in any one community."

According to Ms. Levine and others, those preconditions may be as mundane as a school district's physical layout, with its natural and psychological barriers, and as intangible as leadership.

Changing attitudes on the part of parents may also affect the success of voluntary desegregation methods, says David K. Lerch, who headed the federal government's program of grants for special desegregation projects until 1982, when federal block grants replaced the categorical program.

"Five years ago, I'd have said [a plan like Bakersfield's could not work], but I think today you could do it if it's done right," says Mr. Lerch, who is now president of the National Association of Magnet School Development, based in Alexandria, Va. "It can work if they pick and choose the right kind of district and programs. ... If I were in Justice's shoes I would have made damned sure it had a chance of working before I approved it."

"Parents are not reacting to sending their children to school with kids of another race as much as they did," he adds. "They are more concerned about a proper basic education than they are with race. They are getting somewhat away from the neighborhood-school concept, and they're more willing to transport their kids halfway across the district if they think the program is worthwhile."

Mr. Lerch cautions, however, that inappropriate selection procedures can prompt charges of elitism and diminish the potential of magnet schools to aid with desegregation. "It's terribly important that you attract kids on the basis of interest, not ability," he says.

William L. Taylor, who negotiated on behalf of the NAACP in the Cincinnati case, says that despite his record of often insisting on mandatory student reassignments, "I have always believed that magnets or alternative schools can work in a context where there is an overall policy of desegregation. Students will make desegregative choices if they know that whatever they do, they are likely to be in a desegregated setting. On the other hand, if you tell parents they have a choice between segregation and desegregation, fear will take over and many will opt for neighborhood schools. There has to be a bottom line."

Highly Popular Option

Magnet schools came into being because they were viewed as a way of blunting community opposition to desegregation, those who have studied their development say. They have flourished, despite the cutoff two years ago of federal funds, because they have proven highly popular with parents—so much so that the term "magnet school" in many communities has lost any racial connotations and has come to mean any alternative school, whether or not it was established with desegregation in mind.

Parents in many communities seem to assume, Ms. Rossell says, that magnet schools are "better" than others, and there is some evidence that their students do score higher on standardized tests. But the differences and the reasons for them have not been quantified with any precision, and at this point assessments of magnet schools' educational effectiveness have become reminiscent of the debate over the relative merits of public and private schools.

In many respects, say Mr. Smylie and others, magnets share the characteristics identified in "effective-schools" research: They tend to have strong leadership, a cohesive curriculum, high expectations, and consensus among faculty, students, and parents as to their goals. These attributes, together with self-selection, or the commitment that is implicit on the part of families who bother to seek out the schools, should make for academic success, researchers say.

In their paper last year for the American Enterprise Institute, Ms. Levine and Denis P. Doyle ventured that "effective magnet schools provide quality education to average as well as above-average students. Indeed, they do more for average than above-average students."

The Lowry/Abt study found that, of 32 magnets reporting their student-achievement scores, 80 percent had average scores that exceeded those of their districts. The researchers added, however, that the selective admissions policies of some magnets influenced these results.

Mr. Royster, of the University of Rochester, says there may also be evidence that youngsters in some kinds of magnets do worse than average for their districts. "I don't think you can say categorically that there's a magnet-school effect," he says. "Intuitively, I'd have to say that the self-selection and motivation are very, very important."

Cost Factors

If magnet schools have social and educational benefits, they also have their costs. According to studies and interviews, they are more expensive to run than regular schools (although the cost per pupil declines over time), and probably costlier than running a school system under a mandatory busing plan.

In 1980-81, according to the Lowry/Abt study, the average total cost per student for magnet schools was approximately $200 more than for nonmagnets; the incremental cost declined to $59 in 1981-82. For secondary schools alone, the incremental cost per student declined from $850 to $200 over the same period, with $100 allocable to transportation.

Part of the extra cost is attributed to one-time expenditures for curriculum development, equipment, planning, and building renovation. The rest reflects higher costs for transportation and staff salaries (both because many magnets have smaller classes and because they often attract senior teachers who earn higher-than-average salaries).

From 1978 to 1981, the federal government, through the Emergency School Assistance Act's special-projects grants, earmarked funds to help defray the costs of magnets—about $125 million to $130 million over the life of the program; many school districts also used funds obtained under the larger ESAA basic program to support magnet schools, but the amount has never been determined.

Federal Funds Lost

When the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act was passed in 1981, eliminating ESAA along with about 30 other categorical programs, some observers predicted the end of magnet schools. As a result of the consolidation, many desegregating districts lost 90 percent or more of their federal funds.

In Milwaukee, "Magnets have to share the burden of reductions; class sizes are up," says David A. Bennett, deputy superintendent. In Montclair, recalls Judith H. Wilcox, the district's acting assistant superintendent for instruction, "We had to cut back on certain electives or put off some plans."

Nonetheless, magnets appear to have become so institutionalized and so popular that school boards have found the money to keep them going. The Lowry/Abt study found that many districts had to trim or otherwise modify their optional programs when they lost the federal funds. But, the report adds, "Only a few magnet schools have completely disappeared due to the loss of ESAA support, ... and more districts have developed magnets without federal support than received federal grants the last year of funding." (See chart on this page.)

The House approved a $100-million ESAA reauthorization bill last June. A similar bill, which would be attached as a rider to the highly popular mathematics-and-science improvement measure, has languished in the Senate since early last summer. Earlier this month, the chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approached the supporters of the ESAA bill with a compromise that would provide urban school districts that lost money as a result of the program's elimination with $50 million in fiscal 1985. They reportedly have rejected his offer because it contains no mention of school desegregation.

Others, including the authors of the Lowry/Abt report and Ms. Levine and Mr. Doyle of the American Enterprise Institute, have urged that the government resume its support for magnet schools. The arguments range from what some observers believe is inconsistent policy on the part of the Reagan Administration—emphasizing costly voluntary approaches to desegregation without providing any financial support—to the contention that magnets can provide incubators for innovative practices, to the ultimate benefit of all students.

"The federal government is supposed to be ripe for supporting excellence and voluntary programs," says Mr. Royster.

"If the incremental cost is 100 bucks per pupil, is that too much to bring about something exciting in education?"

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