New Magnet-School Law Emphasizes Desegregation

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In reauthorizing the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program this fall, Congress inserted provisions designed to promote more racial integration.

But critics contend that most of the changes amount to tinkering and that the program is likely to continue to spend large sums that, in terms of desegregation, will have little payoff.

The revisions, enacted as part of the law that reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, call on school districts receiving grants to demonstrate exactly how their magnet projects will increase interaction among students of different social and racial backgrounds. The changes also favor grant applicants who intend to select students through random methods, such as lotteries.

The law retains the requirement that recipient districts must be operating under a court order or a voluntary, federally approved desegregation plan. But Congress did not require them to prove that magnet grants result in integration, as some critics have urged.

"The basic problems I have noted with the program seem to still be there," said Christine H. Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University who has written extensively on magnet schools.

She said the program "should be what it was intended to be originally--a desegregation-funding measure--rather than this Christmas tree it has become."

Desegregation for the Dollar

Early in the reauthorization process, Ms. Rossell and a colleague, David J. Armor, leaked the results of a federally financed study that showed that magnet schools as a group appear to be having little impact on the desegregation of school districts. (See Education Week, 02/02/94.)

The researchers noted that some districts' magnet programs were highly effective tools for desegregation. But, they argued, m.s.a.p. grants also have been going to districts where the magnet programs were too poorly designed to draw students, or where there were too few white students for such programs to have much impact on racial balance.

"We do know how to make magnet schools work," said Mr. Armor, a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia. But, he added in a recent interview, the federal magnet-schools program has been giving districts little incentive "to design magnets that will draw an integrated student body, or shut down magnets that are not working."

Education Department officials argued, however, that Mr. Armor and Ms. Rossell's findings were based on flawed research, an admonition that John F. Jennings, the chief education counsel to the House Education and Labor Committee, said aides accepted.

Congress did change the m.s.a.p. application process so that it would no longer give extra consideration to districts whose desegregation plans would serve the most minority students. Although districts with overwhelmingly minority populations are generally needy, they also are the least likely to be able to use m.s.a.p. grants to diminish racial isolation.

Congress also attempted to address the complaint that magnet programs often result in segregation within schools. To encourage interaction between magnet students and others, as well as overall school improvement, the new law allows schools to use m.s.a.p. funds to provide a magnet program's special curriculum to nonmagnet students.

Strings Detached

Congress authorized $120 million for the magnet program in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1--about $13 million more than the fiscal 1994 level, but well shy of the $165 million proposed by the Clinton Administration.

But the most contentious financial issue was whether lawmakers should require districts to assume some of the costs of magnet programs. The Administration had proposed limiting the federal share of a magnet project's costs to 90 percent in the third year and 70 percent in the fourth.

"Some people have stopped their programs when the grants ceased," noted Donald R. Waldrip, the executive director of Magnet Schools of America, a nonprofit association of educators.

The matching-funds requirement was removed, however, after Democratic aides said it would deprive poor districts of access to m.s.a.p. aid and undermine the government's commitment to racial desegregation.

"A lot of our members thought Congress would be taking a step backward and sending a discouraging message, particularly to financially burdened districts," a Democratic House Education and Labor Committee aide said.

The provision allowing grants to go to consortia of districts was added by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., whose state had required districts to develop regional desegregation plans.

Another provision, added by Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., allows up to 5 percent of m.s.a.p. money to go to schools that are not magnets but are seeking to set up "innovative" programs that are based on a special theme and serve the m.s.a.p.'s purpose of encouraging integration. A House aide said some districts in Pennsylvania had sought funding for improvements at schools that had trouble retaining students who could not get into magnet schools.

Other revisions require applicants to show how their programs will boost achievement and allow m.s.a.p. funds to pay instructional staff other than certified teachers.

Vol. 14, Issue 13

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