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Magnet Schools Matter

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For a decade, the country has been searching for some magical way to "reform and restructure'' public schools. We have tried--and are still trying--all sorts of alchemical nostrums we hope will turn our educationally leaden schools into schools of educational gold.

The most recent attempt at such sorcery is the "goals 2000: educate America act,'' put forward by the Clinton Administration. This warmed-over version of the Bush Administration's America 2000 plan proposes to continue the Bush attempt to impose on all states, all districts, and all schools that set of six authoritarian national education goals with their "world class'' academic standards in the five archaic "core'' subject areas (now plus art and foreign languages) and with their accompanying national system of standardized performance-testing.

No matter how much snake oil we are asked to swallow about how such "goals,'' "standards,'' and "tests'' will be "voluntary,'' no one is really fooled. Those of us who are actually involved with real children in real schools--and especially with children and schools in our devastated urban killing zones--are all too aware of what such a set of top-down, autocratic, and educationally regressive edicts will lead to. They will inflict upon all of our schools the intellectual straitjacket of a narrowly prescribed, thoroughly inequitable, and educationally restrictive national curriculum and a system of equally stultifying standardized national exams.

Meanwhile, we perversely continue to ignore the one existing, highly successful, federally funded national educational program that has for the past 20 years been responsible for more fundamental change in our K-12 public system than all the other federal and state programs put together.

This major miracle has been accomplished--and is still being accomplished--by what is now called the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. This is the U.S. Education Department program that, under two different names, has for two decades promoted the educational experimentation and innovations that have been leading us gradually toward a new and more effective system of education.

The Magnet Schools Assistance Program has been performing this research-and-development miracle by moving the system in precisely the opposite direction of the course being pursued by the authors of the national goals and the national tests.

The M.S.A.P. began life back in the early 1970's during the Nixon Administration. It was then called the Emergency School Aid Act, or E.S.A.A., and was designed to help segregated school districts develop desegregation plans that not only guaranteed educational equity for poor and minority students but would provide all students with a vastly improved education in the public schools.

How, precisely, has the magnet-schools assistance program managed to function as the country's only successful educational R&D effort? To begin with, it has always been strictly a bottom-up operation. Except for a few strictures, the applying school district has been asked to invent its own voluntary program that will guarantee integration, educational equity, and systemwide school improvement for all students.

And since the M.S.A.P. has always been based on the idea of voluntary integration through "magnet'' schools, it has been and remains the first and only successful federal program promoting the idea that parents should be able to choose the kind of integrated public schooling their children will be offered by the local school system.

This notion of magnet-school choice has expanded over the years well beyond the simple concept of a district's having a few magnet (and therefore first-class) schools and many non-magnet (and therefore second-class) schools. Today, we havepublic school systems such as New York City's Community School District 4 in East Harlem and those of Lowell and Cambridge, Mass., in which every school is an integrated magnet or "school of choice.'' It has been out of the magnet-schools assistance program that the idea of "controlled choice'' educational-equity and systemwide school-improvement plans were born and instituted.

But the M.S.A.P. has enabled local districts to go much further and use the idea of magnet schools and controlled parental choice to serve as a catalyst for the exploration and development of ways to completely "restructure'' not only individual schools but entire school systems. The program has made it possible for desegregating districts to change themselves from the authoritarian, top-down autocracies of the past to more democratic, and thus more open and innovotive, modern institutions.

This is being accomplished first by extending the empowerment of choice to include the ability of teachers and principals to choose the kind of schooling they wish to practice. Such empowerment of both parents and professional staff through choice means that every school can be inhabited by students, parents, teachers, and administrators who have freely chosen to be there. They have a shared sense of the school's educational mission. Since they agree on the kind and quality of education the school should offer, they can stop wasting time and energy on futile disagreements about purpose and get down to the business of producing their distinctive version of educational excellence.

Such parental and professional choice has required a further large-scale restructuring--the acceptance of the idea of educational diversity. We know from profound firsthand experience that there is no single educational philosophy or set of educational goals, no single, standardized curriculum, no single way of organizing a school and no single set of standardized tests that can serve the enormous range of needs, interests, and talents of our hugely diverse student population.

Since this is the case, the students, parents, teachers, and principals in our local school systems must have the power to create a genuine diversity of schools within their public system from which they can then choose what best fits them. All such choices, of course, have to be carefully controlled to guarantee equity and equal access for poor and minority parents and students. Some of these schools can be very traditional, back-to-basics schools. Most of them, however, can and should be radical departures from traditional models, such as open-education schools, Montessori schools, and micro-society schools. "Every kid can learn if you put him or her in the right environment,'' is the way East Harlem's Seymour Fliegel puts it, "so there must be a school to fit every kid, with no student falling between the cracks.''

Providing this means that parents, students, teachers, and administrators in these diverse schools have been empowered to make the basic decisions about what the schools will be and do. Magnet schooling has inevitably meant that schools have the autonomy to develop and pursue their own distinctive visions. This includes the power to control a school's educational philosophy, its curriculum, and its per-student, lump-sum budget, and to select its staff. Thus, from its earliest days, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program pioneered what has come to be called decentralized "school-based management'' or "school-site decisionmaking.''

Because admission to most magnets or public schools of choice has been non-selective--controlled only by space availability and the necessary equity guidelines to insure desegregated schools--the program has also been in the forefront of efforts to elevate the educational horizons of children once trapped by circumstance in dilapidated ghetto schools. The kind of radical restructuring brought about by this federal program has done much to reduce the "savage inequalities'' Jonathan Kozol has documented so effectively.

In addition, the M.S.A.P. and the more than 2,000 magnet schools across the country have advanced--and in many cases invented--the concepts and practices reformers are now trying to implement in many non-magnet and non-desegregating school systems. Consider the following partial list: the notion that all children can learn; the belief that children have a broad range of innate abilities that need to be developed along with purely academic skills (Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences); the ideas of cooperative learning, multi-age grouping, and mainstreaming special populations in regular classrooms; experiential "authentic'' learning in the real world; outcomes-based assessments; radical approaches to increasing parent involvement and the integrated delivery of educational and social services; language-immersion programs; integrated, interdisciplinary curricula; the extended school day; career-awareness programs, internships, and apprenticeships; public Montessori schools. All these experiments and reforms have been introduced and tested in magnet schools.

But the M.S.A.P. has its problems as well as its well-documented successes. For roughly the decade of the 1970's, the precursor E.S.A.A. program made available to the country's desegregating districts up to $4 million yearly. In 1981, the Reagan Administration killed this revolutionary program and left beleaguered urban districts stranded. In 1985, largely due to the efforts of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the E.S.A.A. was reborn as the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. Unfortunately, it was funded at the paltry level of $75 million a year for the entire country. This was raised to $113 million in 1989, but has now fallen back to a miserly $108 million for the current year.

Thus, the funding for the federal magnet-schools program has been minuscule when compared with both the need for the program and the possible amount of reform thatcould be generated through its adequate funding.

The program also has required districts to compete with each other every two years for these limited funds. Desegregating districts--which in practice has meant virtually all large and mid-sized urban districts--have had to submit proposals that meet the program's three main conditions: that they are either under a court or state order to desegregate or are doing so voluntarily; that they have prepared a desegregation and student-assignment plan acceptable to the Education Department's office for civil rights and as voluntary as possible; and that they have specified they will not use the federal money to pay for either consultants or transportation.

Reviewers selected by the Education Department read and rank the proposals, making grants to the highest ranked districts for a two-year period. But no single district can receive more than $4 million in a given year, no matter how large it is or how many magnet schools it supports. After those two years, the district may continue to apply, but if it does not win the competition, all of the hard work and innovation generated by the M.S.A.P. can be brought to a halt.

What should be done? For starters, the Clinton Administration and Congress should be thinking immediately and seriously about "full funding'' for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program--at least up to its old E.S.A.A. level of $600 million.

But that would be just the beginning. The program should cease being a competition between financially strapped districts and become a true, large-scale research-and-development and systemwide school-improvement program for all of our long suffering urban--and under-funded rural--districts. Every such district should become eligible for substantial funding if it is able to meet the program's three conditions--with the added proviso that the district must also be proposing to introduce and carry out major innovations.

So here is President William Jefferson Clinton's great opportunity. Given such a large-scale educational-reform and -restructuring program, his Administration and Congress could launch a powerful crusade to remold the public schools into the great public servant they were intended to be.

Evans Clinchy is a senior field associate with the Institute for Responsive Education in Boston, Mass. He is the co-author with Timothy W. Young of Choice in Public Education (Teachers College Press, 1992).

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