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Lost in the School Choice Movement

Charter schools have so dominated the news when it comes to parental choice that it's easy to forget about magnet schools. In the 1960s when they began, magnet schools were virtually the only public alternative for parents who were disaffected for one reason or another with traditional neighborhood schools. Since then their popularity has grown, until today about 2.5 million students are enrolled in 4,000 magnets across the country, according to Magnet Schools of America.

In a way, magnet schools have been the stepchild of the reform movement. Despite their long record of academic achievement and equity, the federal government has not accorded them the respect they deserve, preferring instead to focus on charter schools. This cavalier attitude is surprising because charter schools tend to intensify segregation, according to a study last January by the Civil Rights Project. It found that 70 percent of black charter school students attend schools that are 90 to 100 percent nonwhite.

In contrast, magnet schools tend to draw students from across residential lines. That doesn't guarantee a racially diverse student population, but at least it provides a greater opportunity for integration. Magnet schools are also required to administer the same standardized tests that regular public schools do and to abide by union rules. Although some charter schools, such as Green Dot in Los Angeles, have unionized teachers, the majority do not. Finally, magnet schools are subject to the same oversight as public schools.

Yet magnet schools are not slated to receive what I consider to be a fair share of the $490 million earmarked for school choice in the 2011 budget. This amount - a 20 percent increase over the current budget - will largely go to charter schools. Magnet schools, which receive their funding from the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, will get up to $110 million, a slight increase over the past several years.

This state of affairs is odd because magnet schools are models of excellence right under our noses, as determined by parental satisfaction and academic achievement, the two criteria emphasized by reformers as non-negotiable in the education debate. Nevertheless, we are reluctant to acknowledge their accomplishments. On the other hand, charter schools, which have yet to completely prove themselves, are somehow viewed as a better alternative.

It would be interesting to see a study comparing the academic performance of charter schools with that of magnet schools when demographic factors are controlled. My prediction is that charter schools would not fare as well despite all the attention being paid to them.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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