School Choice & Charters

Backers of Magnet Schools Question Charter Push

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 22, 2010 6 min read
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In comparison with charter schools, some educators and researchers contend, magnet schools have been given short shrift by the Obama administration. These critics argue that magnet schools have a strong record of increasing racial or economic diversity and deserve more federal funding and support than they are receiving.

“In Washington, all the attention has gone to charters,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank based in Washington. “There is something of a disconnect between what’s happening locally and what’s happening nationally. My sense is that magnet schools continue to be quite popular with parents.”

Magnet schools typically have a particular academic focus, such as the arts or science and technology, that is aimed at helping the schools attract a diverse student population. They saw significant growth in the mid-1980s and are run by public school districts. Charter schools are a newer kind of public school with much more flexibility than traditional public schools to choose their own curricula and set their own policies. They can be run by individuals, nonprofit organizations, or private companies.

Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles of the University of California, Los Angeles, said he’d like to see the federal government provide an “open field” for grant competitions for all kinds of public schools, rather than allocating separate amounts of money for charter schools and magnet schools. The federal government should build on the political support among both conservatives and progressives for magnet schools, Mr. Orfield argues.

A report released by the Civil Rights Project this month, “Choice Without Equity,” found that charter schools are more racially isolated than traditional public schools in practically every state and large urban area in the United States. The press release for the report argued that “magnet schools are overlooked, in spite of showing greater levels of integration and academic achievement than charters.”

‘Last Generation’

Students in the school’s Junior Academy of Finance learn about money management. President Obama is calling for magnets to get a 10 percent increase.

The Obama administration’s fiscal 2011 budget proposes to increase funding for magnet schools to $110 million from $100 million this fiscal year. The budget also calls for spending $400 million for “promoting effective charter schools,” an increase of $81 million, or more than 20 percent, over charters’ current funding. In addition, it proposes spending an additional $90 million on promoting public school choice.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the administration thinks magnet schools play an important role. In clarifying the Obama administration’s position on charter schools, he said, “[U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan has consistently said he’s not for all charter schools, just good charter schools.”

Education reformers tend to see magnet schools as “the last generation’s innovation” and are generally more excited about charter schools, said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president of national programs and policies for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Even on the left, there’s so much more enthusiasm for charter schools right now,” he said.

But at the same time, he said, education reformers should be supporting magnet schools as well since they increase choice in education.

At a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the Civil Rights Project to release its report on charter schools, David Cleary, the staff director for U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., expressed support for magnet schools.

Maria Reyes, an 8th grader at R.M. Marrs Magnet Center in Omaha, Neb., helps a fellow student. Scholars and activists suggest more money for magnets.

“We need to do more to improveand expand magnet schools,” Mr. Cleary said. However, he noted that he didn’t agree with the report’s strong emphasis on the need for diversity in charter schools, characterizing the findings as saying some charter schools “aren’t white enough.”

Mr. Orfield responded at the briefing to Mr. Cleary’s criticism by saying “our report doesn’t say all charter schools can be desegregated.” Rather, he said, the federal government should have some civil rights requirements for charter schools that encourage diversity plans where they are feasible. He added in an interview that charter schools could be required to have outreach plans, for example, that would aim to recruit a mix of students, including English-language learners.

Federal education officials are indeed interested in supporting diversity, Russlynn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights for the Education Department, said in an interview this month.

When asked why the Education Department didn’t give any points for diversity for states’ applications to receive some of the $4 billion in Race to the Top stimulus grants, Ms. Ali said diversity was addressed with points for equitable distribution of good teachers and closing the achievement gap.

States can be awarded 40 out of 500 possible points for having created conditions favorable to charter schools and other innovative schools.

Ms. Ali said federal education officials are preparing several pieces of civil rights guidance that will apply to federal education grantmaking and are expected to be rolled out this spring.

The Obama administration’s proposal to increase funding for magnet schools is a nod to their importance, she said.

Economic Diversity

But even among magnet schools, diversity has waned as a goal.

In a 2008 report, the Civil Rights Project found that while at the start of the magnet-school movement, many had racial diversity as a goal, some had moved away from that ideal over time. Nearly one-third of magnet schools in the study’s sample, for example, still had desegregation goals, while 43 percent of the sample no longer or never had such aims.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2007 on admissions policies in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., restricts public school districts from using race to determine where students should go to school. The court left open the option for race to be a consideration in certain instances, such as in drawing boundaries for attendance zones or deciding where to locate schools. But a growing number of school districts integrate primarily by students’ socioeconomic status, according to Mr. Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation.

The 100,000-student Jefferson County district in Louisville bases students’ assignments on where they live. The boundaries for geographic attendance areas are drawn in a way that aims to create a mix of students from the part of the county with a concentration of affluent white families and a part of the county with a concentration of families that are minorities or have low household incomes.

Because the plan is new, it’s unclear whether it will yield a similar diversity in schools as did the race-conscious policies that were struck down by the Supreme Court, according to Pat Todd, the district’s executive director for student assignment.

Ms. Todd said she is concerned about the federal government’s emphasis on charter schools because “charter schools are about going around districts, not thinking about policy at a district level.”

Sandy Day, the president of the Washington-based Magnet Schools of America and the coordinator for magnet programs in Omaha, Neb., said she’d like to see more federal funding for magnet schools, and is encouraged that officials in the Obama administration seem to be listening to educators promoting such schools.

“There was a time that students of color and living in poverty could not access high-level courses,” she said. “That’s one of the things that magnet schools provide.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as Backers of Magnet Schools Question Charter Push


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