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Magnets' Value in Desegregating Schools Is Found To Be Limited

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Washington

After rejecting an earlier review that reached essentially the same conclusions, the Department of Education has endorsed a study suggesting that federally subsidized magnet schools have been of limited value as a tool for integrating schools.

The new study also calls into question the department's success at holding schools accountable for more than $1 billion distributed since the mid-1980s through its Magnet Schools Assistance Program. The 12-year-old program provides the federal government's only direct funding for school desegregation.

Education Department officials last week acknowledged shortcomings in their past efforts to ensure that schools receiving magnet school grants spelled out or met specific goals for reducing racial isolation among minority students.

They said they were working to correct the accountability lapses identified in the study, which the department quietly distributed to members of Congress on the Friday afternoon before last week's elections.

"In the past, the focus was on giving out the money rather than evaluating whether it was successful," said Stephanie Stullich, the Education Department project officer who oversaw the study. "That's really changing."

The study, commissioned by the department at the behest of Congress, examined more than 1,000 schools that received funds under the popular program from 1989 through 1993. Researchers set out to look at the desegregation goals each school had set and then assess whether they were met.

Yet in 42 percent of those schools, researchers could not pinpoint specific goals related to eliminating, reducing, or preventing isolation of minority students, despite the program's requirement that the grants be used for those purposes.

Moreover, in the 615 schools for which researchers could find such objectives, the results were not encouraging.

Progress Elusive

Fewer than half of those schools actually met their goals, many of which were as modest as simply slowing projected increases in nonwhite enrollment.

Among schools that aimed either to slow such growth or to achieve real increases in white enrollment, the proportion of minorities actually rose by an average of 1.5 percent.

Those and other findings led the study's authors, Lauri Steele and Marian Eaton of the American Institutes for Research in Palo Alto, Calif., to conclude that federally supported magnet schools had brought little relief to isolated minority students.

"The impact has been modest," Ms. Steele said in an interview.

Ms. Stullich of the Education Department conceded that the assessment of the grants' impact "was not what you would hope to see." But she added that even modest gains were worthwhile in an arena as intractable as school segregation.

"They're obviously not achieving dramatic improvements," Ms. Stullich, who works in the department's planning and evaluation service, said. "But dramatic improvements may be too much to expect."

Ms. Stullich and other department officials also said the magnet program will be retooled to require recipients to keep data necessary to show whether they are meeting the program's goals.

"We have to look more carefully at how they're using the dollars and to what end," said Gerald N. Tirozzi, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

At the same time, he noted, the department must walk a fine line between accountability and bureaucratic rigidity. "What we don't want to become is this highly regulated, compliance-driven institution."

Magnets' Popularity Grows

As disenchantment with mandatory busing has mounted over the past 15 years, magnet schools have been increasingly viewed as a more palatable and effective alternative for desegregating schools.

Magnet programs typically aim to attract whites to mainly minority schools, often in inner cities, by providing appealing educational alternatives to normal public schools. Many operate with special themes such as the arts or math, science, and technology, either as stand-alone schools or as self-contained programs within a school.

By 1992, according to the report, more than 2,400 schools offered more than 3,150 magnet programs nationwide. The number of students served by such programs tripled from 1983 to 1992, reaching an estimated 1.2 million.

Since its inception in 1984, the federal program has fueled this growth. Its annual budget has fluctuated between $75 million and $113 million, and currently stands at $95 million.

Study Follows Controversy

The research leading to the study began in 1994 after the department refused to include an analysis of the program's effectiveness for desegregation in a report that the department had hired the American Institutes for Research to prepare.

That excised section was conducted for AIR by two prominent desegregation experts, David Armor of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Christine Rossell of Boston University, both of whom consider themselves proponents of magnet schools.

Using a different method than that used by Ms. Steele and Ms. Eaton, Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell essentially concluded that the federally supported magnet schools did not, by themselves, increase integration. ("Magnets' Efficacy as Desegregation Tool Questioned," Feb. 2, 1994.)

Both professors contended that Education Department officials squelched their study after a year of internal controversy primarily because its conclusions undermined the program.

Department officials say they did so out of concern for the validity of the research methodology.

In any case, the department's decision to revisit the desegregation issue caused it to exceed the project's initial $750,000 budget by about $250,000.

Originally, the evaluation was to have been the first part of a two-pronged study, with the second phase focusing on the magnet schools' record on improving student achievement, parent involvement, and school operations.

But that phase has been scrapped, in part of because of the cost overruns. Instead, the department is spending an additional $300,000 to develop performance indicators designed to help it track the program's effectiveness down the road.

Demographic Hurdles

In the new study, the researchers take pains to note that many districts trying to desegregate face an "uphill battle," given their dwindling pools of white students. In the 119 districts that received grants during the period studied, average minority enrollment was 58 percent and growing. Of the 1,068 schools examined, nearly three-fourths had minority enrollments above 50 percent.

Officials from several districts that have received grants under the federal program said there were other factors working against them as well.

In Duval County, Fla., for example, magnet schools debuted five years ago as part of a court-sanctioned agreement to end widespread forced busing in the district, which includes Jacksonville. Parents were so relieved that their children could attend neighborhood schools that persuading them to endure a lengthy bus ride to reach a magnet school was a tough sell, said Judy Poppell, the district's director of student assignment and magnet programs.

In addition, she said some educators who stood to lose students and their accompanying funding undermined the fledgling magnets' recruitment efforts.

Another problem, she said, was the sheer number of magnet programs undertaken. Of the 150 schools in the 123,000-student district, 80 have some kind of magnet program, diluting their drawing power.

As a result, only about a third of the programs are clearly thriving, she said, another third are foundering, and the rest are somewhere in between.

In the latest round of grants, awarded last year, the district has chosen to focus on 21 schools with black enrollment of 90 percent or more.

"They're the hardest nuts to crack," she said. "We're making progress, although it's slow. But had it not been for the funding, I don't think we'd even be this far."

Accountability Questioned

To be eligible for a federal magnet school grant, districts must show that the money will be used to reduce, eliminate, or prevent minority isolation at each funded magnet school or at feeder schools from which students for the magnet school are drawn.

The AIR researchers found that 453 of the 1,068 schools that received grants during two-year cycles starting in 1989 and 1991 had no such objectives.

The reasons varied. In some cases, the school hoped to increase minority enrollment at a predominantly white school but failed to show how that would alleviate racial isolation at mainly minority schools. In others, baseline enrollment data were unavailable or documentation of the schools' desegregation goals was too scanty.

Moreover, the researchers discovered that the annual performance reports required of grant recipients missed the boat when it came to measuring schools' success at improving integration.

The authors conclude that these shortcomings hampered their research and raise questions of accountability.

Improvements Promised

Since the time period covered in the study, the department has begun requiring applicants to more clearly spell out their desegregation goals. That new emphasis was evident in the latest grant-awarding process last year, district and agency officials said.

Still, the researchers suggest that the department had not gone far enough.

"The issue of specifying desegregation objectives for individual schools will need to be addressed further if schools and districts are to be held accountable for meeting their objectives," the authors write.

In an interview last week, Mr. Armor echoed that concern.

"There were no accountability and quality controls set up through this program," he said.

Developing performance indicators is a good idea, he said, but he called them overdue. "Somebody should have thought about this 10 years ago."

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