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Districts Call For Flexibility on Magnet-School Rules

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Washington--Stepped-up efforts by the Education Department's office for civil rights to strictly enforce the desegregation standards of the federal magnet-schools program have drawn criticism of those standards over the past year from those on the receiving end, who suggest that the rules are no longer realistic in light of the current demographics of urban school systems.

In response, the department has moved to make the desegregation standards more flexible for the award cycle that will culminate in a new set of grants next year. Department officials say they may propose further changes when the program is reauthorized in 1993.

The rules governing the magnet-schools program aim to ensure that funded projects fulfill their primary purpose: decreasing segregation.

The law that created the program in 1984 states that it is to fund efforts to remedy former illegal segregation or reduce "minority-group isolation" in targeted schools.

The department's regulations, drafted in 1985, define "minority-group isolation" as a situation in which minority students make up half or more of a school's enrollment.

If minority enrollment increases at such a school, it is no longer eligible for magnet-school funds.

District officials and others familiar with the program say that the department has checked those enrollment figures in the past grant cycle much more closely than it did in either the 1985 or 1987 round.

Department officials, in turn, acknowledge that they have for the first time required districts whose federally funded magnets had shown increases in minority isolation in the past to sign "special assurances" that this would not happen before they could get a 1989 grant.

"We now have more information about these districts than we did before," said Alicia Coro, director of school-improvement programs. "We can now look at their track record and see if they have really decreased minority isolation."

This scrutiny has cost two schools the second year of their two-year grants, and forced districts to make unwanted changes in other schools.

In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., for example, district officials had to abandon their policy of striving for a racial balance in each school that was as close as possible to the district average, said Karen Markeloff, assistant superintendent for instruction.

The district's enrollment is about 65 percent minority, she said, but one magnet school was only 58 percent minority in 1988-89. She was "pleased," she recalled, when it rose to 62 percent in 1989-90.

The o.c.r. was not so pleased, however, and warned that the district could lose its magnet aid. So, she said, the district changed its assignment procedure to ensure that the school returned to its previous racial balance in the current year.

"I didn't like that, because I don't think it's morally right," she said.

At another school, Ms. Markeloff continued, minority enrollment is only 47 percent, and cannot be allowed to increase above 50 percent without threatening federal funding.

Ms. Markeloff said she does not fault those who enforce the rules.

"The rules go back to days when things were different around the country," she said. "The concept of changing minority-group isolation by bringing in non-minorities is not a real option in many places now.''

The 50 percent definition of "minority-group isolation" first appeared in the Emergency School Assistance Act, which aided schools faced with the task of desegregation in the 1960's and 1970's. Although the program was essentially abolished in 1981, when it was folded into the Chapter 2 block grant, the law and regulations for the magnet-schools aid retain a lot of e.s.a.a. language.

Some educators argue that the8rules need refurbishing.

At a recent forum on school desegregation, district officials even suggested that the definition of "minority" be changed to reflect a new reality in which some districts are made up not of white and minority students but of students from several nonwhite ethnic groups.

Department officials, however, told them that the definition of "minority" is set governmentwide and would be difficult to alter.

But the most common complaint from school districts that faced close scrutiny of their magnet programs is that the rules are too inflexible.

"Whether you think there's a problem depends on your concept of what this program should do," said a consultant who works with school districts on their grant applications, "and whether it caused a peculiar problem in your district this year."

Poughkeepsie was one of seven districts that applied for the 1989 magnet grants and were identified by the ocr as having failed to decrease minority isolation in schools funded in previous years.

The agency allowed those districts to get grants, but asked them to promise that "isolation" would not continue to increase, and to submit more data on many of their schools in early 1990. That data satisfied concerns about some schools, but 16 schools in five districts were singled out for review before they could receive further funding.

Funds for six of those schools were held up well into the fall, and two schools, in Seattle and in New York City, were ultimately denied funds because they did not meet desegregation requirements. (See Education Week, Nov. 28, 1990.)

In Seattle, minority enrollment in one targeted high school increased, so the school lost its $240,000 magnet allotment. Ken Watson, supervisor of grant programs for the district, said this happened both because a new "controlled choice" program made it difficult to predict school enrollments and because a bilingual-education center was launched at the school in question.

"It seems the rules for magnet funds don't recognize choice," he said, adding that this is "ironic" in light of the Bush Administration's emphasis on parental choice in schooling.

"It is difficult for a district with increasing minority enrollment to meet the guidelines, and it is even more difficult in a choice system," he said.

Seattle shifted enough minority students from a second high school that was under review to retain its eligibility for federal magnet aid.

Some critics charge that the magnet program encourages districts to give favorable treatment to white students. Several district and state officials and consultants familiar with the program said some districts intentionally maintain 100 percent minority schools in order to keep up white enrollment in their federally funded magnets.

Richard D. Komer, deputy assistant secretary for policy in the o.c.r., said he "wouldn't be surprised" at such practices, noting that districts that are not under court order to desegregate have no legal obligation to eliminate 100 percent minority schools.

"I see the rationale for trying to make schools reflect the population," he said, "but the purpose of the program is to encourage integration, not to make all schools equally minority-isolated."

Mr. Komer thinks the magnet program's main problem is that the funding formula favors urban districts with large minority populations that are the least likely to achieve significant amounts of integration.

"You get funded based on the number of minority students the magnet schools are serving," he said. "So a district talking about reducing minority isolation from 98 percent to 93 percent can get a lot of money, even though the degree of integration is minimal."

Mr. Komer said this is particularly applicable to schools in New York City, where one school lost $371,000 this year when it failed to achieve sufficient integration.

Phyllis Gonon, deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction in New York's Community District 18, said minority enrollment at the school, Junior High School 232, went up less than 1 percentage point.

"What can you do?" Ms. Gonon asked. "What happens if a black family moves in? You can't say to them, 'You can't come because its going to increase our percentages and we won't get the magnet grant."'

Federal officials note, however, that the purpose of the program is desegregation, and that was not achieved in j.h.s. 232, which they said is about 98 percent minority.

"They made no decrease over two years," said a department official. "We decided that either they weren't trying or it isn't doable."

Ms. Coro said the department has no plans to overhaul the program before it is reauthorized.

Even so, the agency has tried to ameliorate some of the problems by adding a new rule for this year's competition, whose deadline has been extended until Dec. 28.

The rule, printed in the Oct. 25 Federal Register, states that the department will consider a magnet plan that increases minority isolation either at the schools applying for funding or in schools from which the magnet students would be drawn, as long as an increase in minority enrollment at a particular school does not raise it above the district average.

The department will also consider whether minority isolation would be greater without the magnet plan.

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