Magnets’ Efficacy As Desegregation Tool Questioned

By Peter Schmidt — February 02, 1994 10 min read


Findings from a federally funded study, which are being withheld from release by Education Department officials, cast doubt on the efficacy of magnet schools for desegregating school districts.

The study, which one of the researchers provided to Education Week, also indicates that some grants under the federal magnet-schools program are going to districts that have no realistic chance of furthering the program’s primary goal of promoting racial desegregation.

In an examination of desegregation plans around the country, two of the study’s authors--David J. Armor, a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia, and Christine H. Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University--were unable to find conclusive evidence that magnet schools significantly bolster districtwide efforts to reduce racial isolation, improve racial balance, or stem “white flight.’'

While some individual districts have achieved significant levels of integration through the use of magnet schools, the researchers found that, in the aggregate, desegregation plans with magnet programs appeared to accomplish little more desegregation than comparable plans without magnets.

Education Department officials maintained in recent interviews that the research leading to these findings was so methodologically flawed that it justified deleting sections from the forthcoming report.

“Our bottom line is that people have to have confidence in the methodology,’' said Alan L. Ginsburg, the director of the department’s planning and evaluation service.

The results “were just not at a stage where we could put them out there and it would be clear what they said,’' said Lauri M. Steel, the director for education and human development at American Institutes for Research, a Palo Alto, Calif., firm that contracted with the department to perform the study and in turn hired Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell to work on it.

Motives Questioned

But several researchers who worked on the study insisted in interviews that these flaws had been addressed and were judged to have no significant impact on the results.

In addition, Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell alleged that political motivations were behind the Education Department’s decision to withhold certain findings.

The sections of the study that are slated for public release, they noted, generally outline the advantages of magnet schools and describe them as popular and promising.

“I don’t care what administration you are working for, nobody likes findings that don’t support the program they are running,’' Ms. Rossell said.

Mr. Armor, who provided a copy of the May 28, 1993, final draft of the study to Education Week, argued that the findings “ought to be out there in the public domain and [the] dialogue over these issues.’'

Congress requested the study in anticipation of the upcoming reauthorization of the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program.

The Federal Contribution

Since it was established in 1985, the magnet-schools program has provided more than $739 million for the implementation and expansion of magnet programs, awarding 117 districts with desegregation plans two-year grants ranging from $367,000 to $4 million. It is currently the only federal program that provides aid to schools specifically for the purpose of desegregation.

Although the primary purpose of the M.S.A.P. has been desegregation, grant applicants are also asked to demonstrate how their magnet programs will improve educational achievement.

The Reagan and Bush administrations, in promoting school choice, tried to expand the scope of the M.S.A.P. to allow funding of excellent magnet schools that do not necessarily promote integration. But their efforts were thwarted by members of Congress who argued the program already could not meet the existing demand from districts that need help to desegregate--reaffirming that the program’s goal is to further desegregation. (See Education Week, April 6, 1988, and April 12, 1989.)

While the magnet program remains politically popular, it has been plagued with questions about whether it is achieving its goals.

In 1990, for example, the Education Department was forced to tinker with M.S.A.P. rules that were having unintended consequences.

Under the earlier rules, a magnet plan became ineligible for funding if minority enrollment increased at a school where it already exceeded 50 percent--even if the district average for minority enrollment was higher and other schools were 100 percent minority. Two schools lost their grants because of this rule, and districts were forced to change student-assignment policies. (See Education Week, Dec. 12, 1990.)

Real Desegregation?

Critics also note that some grants have gone to districts with very high percentages of minority students--and thus little chance of achieving significant integration.

Almost a quarter of the grants made under the M.S.A.P. have gone to districts that are at least three-quarters minority, Ms. Rossell said, and about 4 percent have gone to districts with minority enrollments of over 90 percent. Although such districts may have been worthy recipients of additional federal funds, she said, their desegregation efforts likely amounted to the reshuffling of a few white students.

She also estimated that more than 40 percent of the districts that have received grants have mandatory student-assignment plans. Thus, she said, comparable desegregation would have been achieved even if no magnets were used.

Donald R. Waldrip, the executive director of a professional association called Magnet Schools of America, last week said he does not know of any federally funded magnet programs that failed to achieve at least some desegregation.

Indeed, the rules require districts to demonstrate at least a minor impact on racial balance to continue receiving funds.

However, Mr. Waldrip also observed that M.S.A.P. administrators, in awarding grants, appear to give the number of minority children in a district more weight than the applicant’s perceived chances of reducing racial isolation.

Sylvia L. Wright, the chief of the Education Department’s magnet-schools and desegregation branch, said last week that her office carefully examines grant applications to insure that the magnet plans will reduce racial isolation.

No Major Changes Proposed

Thomas W. Payzant, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, conceded that some grants are awarded to programs that have the odds stacked against them in trying to achieve desegregation. But he contended that the department should take such risks because even programs fighting such odds can succeed if they “are of high quality and are attractive to parents and students.’'

Ms. Rossell contended that Education Department officials are aware of the problems she has raised but regard addressing them as “politically unfeasible’’ because many M.S.A.P. grants go to large urban districts represented by powerful members of Congress.

Privately, some Administration officials acknowledge that this is a factor. The Administration and Congress also are reluctant to jeopardize aid to districts that are often desperately in need of the funds.

The House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational education was expected this week to begin work on legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes the magnet program.

Neither the Administration’s reauthorization plan nor a draft released last month by the House panel addresses the issues raised by Ms. Rossell and Mr. Armor.

The most significant changes proposed in either version are designed to address racial isolation within magnet schools and to appease critics who charge that magnets skim off the best students. The revisions call for enhanced support for programs that serve broad student populations, and would allow M.S.A.P. funds to be used to promote interaction between magnet students and other children.

Congressional aides last week said they have been unable, so far, to obtain copies of the new study, which Congress had authorized primarily to examine the impact of the M.S.A.P. on desegregation.

“The Education Department, in general, has been very good about giving us studies on time. With this particular study, I am not sure why it is not up here,’' said John F. Jennings, the general counsel for the House Education and Labor Committee.

A Year of Revisions

The American Institutes for Research study had been heralded as the first major national survey of magnet schools undertaken in nearly a decade. The department in 1990 awarded A.I.R. about $750,000 for the first phase of the research. The controversial report is the final product of that phase.

A draft began circulating within the department about a year ago, internal memorandums indicate.

Sources at the the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have confirmed that, at about that time, department officials gave them a copy of the report, which their lawyers used in cross-examining Mr. Armor in his capacity as an expert witness in a Hartford, Conn., school-desegregation trial.

Internal Education Department memorandums reveal that several concerns about the methodology of that draft were voiced by officials in the division that runs the magnet program, the general counsel’s office, and the office for civil rights. All said the report failed to adequately show how the M.S.A.P. was affecting desegregation.

A March 2, 1993, memo to A.I.R. from Stephanie Stullich, the department’s project director for the study, said the study could be revised to address those concerns.

Ms. Steel of A.I.R. expressed a similar view in a memo to her fellow researchers, maintaining that most suggested changes “can be made without a whole lot of effort.’'

Research Bias Alleged

The final draft of the report provided to Education Week was submitted to the Education Department in May 1993 and again circulated internally for review.

Most of the criticism this time focused on the sixth chapter, in which Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell used regression analyses to compare similar desegregation plans with and without magnet schools; they found no evidence that magnets, in themselves, contribute significantly to districtwide desegregation.

The department’s office for civil rights, where Norma V. Cantu took over as assistant secretary that month, almost immediately voiced strong concerns over what Ms. Cantu recently called “serious flaws’’ in the research underpinning that chapter.

“Personally, as a taxpayer, I was disappointed by how incomplete the analysis was,’' Ms. Cantu said last month in an interview.

Ms. Cantu, a former lawyer for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who has squared off against Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell when they served as expert witnesses in court, characterized the two as “opponents of desegregation’’ and called their research superficial and biased.

Both researchers have published studies linking white flight to mandatory student reassignment--a finding also contained in the magnet report’s sixth chapter--but they describe themselves as supporters of magnet schools.

Education Department officials last month maintained that the researchers failed to account for the fact that the districts that adopt magnet schools tend to be the ones encountering the most difficulty in desegregating. The researchers, they said, also linked some long-term enrollment trends to relatively new magnets. An independent review panel expressed similar concerns but made no suggestions regarding publication.

Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell have insisted that they addressed these concerns and incorporated sufficient caveats into the report.

While department officials have no plans to publish the controversial analyses, portions of the study providing an overview of magnet programs are to be released within weeks.

The published findings will show that the number of magnet schools has doubled, to over 2,600, over the last decade, and that the number of children being served has tripled, to about 1.4 million.

The department expects within months to release another section discussing M.S.A.P. grants and their substantial impact on the desegregation of individual schools.

A.I.R. has received about $450,000 for a second research phase designed to assess the impact of magnet programs on student achievement, parent involvement, and school operation, which--as Ms. Steel noted in a memorandum--was to go forward only after the results of the first phase were deemed acceptable. The second phase is now under way, although Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell no longer are involved.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as Magnets’ Efficacy As Desegregation Tool Questioned