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What Happened to Magnet Schools?

Once considered the most promising way to voluntarily integrate schools while at the same time provide a challenging curriculum, magnet schools have since been eclipsed in popularity by charter schools. What is taking place in Los Angeles is a case in point. Although magnet schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District have been in existence since 1977, they have not been able to keep pace with the growth in charter schools since 1993 when they first started. At present, there are 197 charters, enrolling about 110,000 students - far more than any other district in the nation. This compares with 173 magnets, enrolling a little over 59,000 students.

Despite the number of magnet programs, 27 are under-enrolled, while others have long waiting lists ("More than 2 dozen L.A. Unified magnet schools are under-enrolled," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 23). The most likely explanation for the disparity among magnets is the location of the school and its offering. In the case of the LAUSD, it's also about the rules that involve a complicated point system and racial quotas. Parents can't assume that applying guarantees acceptance. To address their concern, the district recently changed its policy to allow parents to choose up to three magnet programs in the hope that by doing so their children's chances of being accepted will improve.

It's this disconnect between supply and demand that is given too little attention in the parental choice debate. Opening new schools - whether charters or magnets - is not like opening a new branch of a business. It's always expensive because there are no economies of scale in education. Retrofitting old schools that have been closed, or buying/leasing new space are costly, no matter how often the process is repeated. That's because in both cases new teachers who possess the necessary qualifications have to be hired, and schools by their very nature are labor-intensive.

Although both magnet schools and charter schools offer a choice to parents who believe that traditional public schools do not meet their children's needs and interests, there is one major difference between the two. Charter schools operate outside most Education Code requirements and board of education rules. As a result, they possess far more flexibility in hiring and in innovation. On the other hand, magnet schools usually provide transportation, while most charter schools do not. This may not seem significant in the overall scheme of things, but in sprawling cities like Los Angeles it is a major consideration.

I hope more magnet schools will open across the country because I think they represent the best of both worlds. They are public schools with unionized teachers, but they offer a focus on a specialized aspect of the curriculum. At the same time, however, I urge caution in expectations. In 1985, for example, a federal district court judge ordered Missouri to fund magnet schools in the Kansas City Public Schools to reverse white flight. Nevertheless, despite a tripling of the budget, magnet school test scores did not improve, and the black-white achievement gap did not narrow.

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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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