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E.D. Proposes New Rules for Magnet-Schools Program

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WASHINGTON--The Education Department has proposed new regulations in an effort to adapt desegregation standards in the federal magnet-schools program to the changing demographics of urban school systems.

The issue arose in 1990, when stepped-up efforts of the department's Office for Civil Rights to enforce the standards caused two schools to lose their magnet grants in the second year of the 1989-1990 grant cycle. Funding for several others was held up. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990.)

In an effort to address complaints from educators that the rules were unrealistic, the department drafted new guidelines for the two-year grants awarded in 1991. The current proposal would essentially codify those guidelines into formal regulations.

The rules aim to ensure that projects financed under the magnet program 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 define minority-group isolation as a situation in which minority students make up half or more of a school's enrollment. The definition was drawn from rules for a precursor program from the 1960's and 1970's.

50 Percent Cutoff

Under the department's interpretation of the law, a plan became ineligible for federal funding if minority enrollment increased at a school where such enrollment already exceeded 50 percent--even if the district average was higher and other schools were 100 percent minority.

Sources familiar with the program said some districts intentionally maintain 100 percent minority enrollment at other schools in order to keep such enrollment within bounds at their magnet schools, thus protecting their federal aid.

District officials and consultants knowledgeable about the program said the Education Department checked enrollment figures more closely in the 1989 grant cycle than in 1985 or 1987. Schools in Seattle and New York City lost grants; other districts had to change their student-assignment policies to retain them.

Acknowledging Differences

The rules proposed in the Aug. 12 Federal Register would retain the reduction of minority-group isolation as a program goal. But they would specify that a desegregation plan under which the minority percentage increases at some schools would be acceptable if the higher levels do not exceed the district average and the plan reduces "isolation'' at other schools.

"We're acknowledging that there are different degrees of minority enrollment in school districts and are trying to acknowledge the difference in demographics, rather than setting an arbitrary percentage that we realize is unrealistic,'' Alicia Coro, the director of school-improvement programs for the Education Department, said last week.

She said the policy change "facilitated the eligiblilty'' of several districts that received awards in 1991. She noted as an example six heavily minority community school districts in New York City.

Changes in Scoring

Ms. Coro pointed out that the change also allows funded districts to set up magnets in schools with relatively low minority enrollments and thereby "open up new opportunities for minority students to attend the magnet schools''--an option that was unavailable under the old rules.

While the new "percentage'' standard primarily helps heavily minority districts, the proposed rules would also make changes in the way applications are scored. Several of the changes are designed to increase the chance that funding will go to districts with more balanced overall enrollments.

The proposal would reduce the scoring weight given to the number of minority students participating in the desegregation plan, and would increase the weight given to the likelihood that a plan will achieve integration.

In addition, the revisions would alter a requirement that applications address the way the district plans to ensure participation of "underrepresented'' groups.

The old rule specified that those groups include minorities, women, the disabled, and the elderly. The proposed new rule cites "participants who have been traditionally underrepresented in courses or activities offered as part of the magnet school,'' giving as examples female students in science courses and disabled students.

The quality of the magnet schools' educational programs would also be added as an explicit scoring factor.

Comments on the regulations are due by Sept. 28.

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