Saturday, January 30, 2016


Joel Packer who lobbies in Washington for LAUSD

  ::  For all the successful magnet schools in LA Unified and elsewhere, they are not attracting as much federal support as charter schools.

That was a stark message from the district’s federal lobbyist, who told a district board committee this week that Washington is increasing national support for charter schools by nearly 32 percent but by only 6 percent for magnet schools, a difference that surprised some of the school board members.

“We never imagined this would ever be this much of a discrepancy,” board president Steve Zimmer said at a meeting of the board’s Committee of the Whole.

The money for charters rose to $350 million from $270 million while the magnet school support increased to $96 million from $91 million, according to Joel Packer, of the Raben Group, which lobbies for the district in Washington.

“Charter schools have big bipartisan support in Congress,” Packer said. “They got a big increase. Magnet schools don’t have the same political clout.”

In response to Packer’s overall report outlining changes in federal education policy, committee chairman George McKenna pointed out, “Charters can lobby and have money to give to campaigns and give to board members. Magnets don’t have that ability; they are not separate legal entities.”

Zimmer wondered if the charter money could also go to affiliated charters, which are still associated with LAUSD employee standards and controls.

“No one can seem to answer that,” he said. “And the Republicans don’t even know what they are.”
Board member Mónica Ratliff said, “We have some amazing magnet schools, maybe we need to do a better job at publicizing what a great job they are doing and replicate more of them.”

Magnet schools are specialized schools within the traditional public school model, and LAUSD has 125 of them, including specialized schools that have a focus on things like police academies and computer science.
“I am very disappointed,” said board member Scott Schmerelson. “Charter schools have excellent propaganda. I have been enlightened, but I have also been bewildered. Who is talking up the LAUSD magnet schools and telling them how wonderful we are?”

Superintendent Michelle King said, “If the word is not out, it needs to get out, our magnet schools are tremendous.”

King added, “The highest performing of the schools are our magnet schools, and they are outperforming charters. If we want to incubate what is working, we need to look at magnet schools.”
Packer’s report also showed increases in Title I money, state grants, preschool grants, adult education, Head Start, child care and more, with the only cuts in school improvement grants. Packer noted that some funding restructuring can end up benefitting LA Unified in the future.

The board was also apprised of other federal changes, including the successor to No Child Left Behind, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. It reduces the emphasis in a standardized test and more autonomy for states to assess their schools. States will have to identify the lowest performing five percent of schools. That also concerned superintendent King.

“That signals to me that it could be mostly LAUSD schools,” King said.

She was told that the new state guidelines are being discussed now at the state level, and that LAUSD should be involved in how schools are assessed.

Overall, the budget news was better than in years past, said Zimmer, who went to Washington many times to lobby in person.

“If we keep telling the LA story on Capitol Hill, of the districts like ours and families like ours, they they will understand how important role of education truly is,” he said.


By Michael Collier | EdSource Today |

January 27, 2016 | As they presented oral arguments before an appellate court Wednesday, attorneys in a high-profile lawsuit hoped that justices will allow them to go to trial to prove that by inadequately funding public schools the state is violating California students’ constitutional right to a quality education.

The three justices on the 1st District Court of Appeal in San Francisco must rule within the next 90 days on whether to overturn a ruling by an Alameda County Superior Court judge who dismissed the case, Robles-Wong v. California, on grounds that there’s no constitutional right to an adequately funded education. In that ruling, Judge Steven Brick said the Legislature has the right to set funding levels as it chooses.

The case consolidates two lawsuits filed in 2010 — Campaign for Quality Education v. California and the Robles-Wong case.

In a session lasting more than an hour, justices on the court focused on the issue in the lawsuits’ core claim, that insufficient funding levels are denying children their constitutional right to an education that prepares them to participate fully in economic and civil life.

The justices focused on the key idea of the concept of quality, while the attorney for the state, Joshua Sondheimer, said the state does not oversee quality.

Steven Mayer, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Robles-Wong, told the justices that the state Supreme Court has held that education is a constitutional right in the state, “and a violation of that right has occurred.”

The Legislature defines quality education in establishing high academic standards but it hasn’t provided enough funding so that all students can meet those standards, Mayer said.

While a ruling by the three justices won’t be issued for several weeks, it could be groundbreaking if the justices decide that a quality education is constitutionally guaranteed.

Justice Peter Siggins acknowledged that under the state’s current system there is “a disparity of opportunity” for students.

Mayer said that a minimal level of state funding, which Proposition 98 guarantees, doesn’t ensure quality education.

“We can’t have a system where half the students are not proficient,” Mayer argued, and pointed out that California students consistently rank near the bottom of the nation in academic performance. Furthermore, more funding, not simply redistributing funding, is needed, he added.

Sondheimer argued that there is “no qualitative level for education in the state Constitution.”

That prompted Justice Martin Jenkins to assert that “there must be a qualitative element in every classroom.”

Plaintiffs in the Robles case are the California School Boards Association, the California State PTA, the association of California School Administrators, the California Teachers Association, the Youth & Education Law Project at Stanford Law School and 60 individuals, including the lead plaintiff, Maya Robles-Wong, who was a junior at Alameda High School when the suits were filed. The Campaign for Quality Education suit was filed by Public Advocates Inc., which represented five nonprofits serving low-income, minority families. 

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick dismissed both lawsuits in December 2011. In his rulings, Brick acknowledged students’ fundamental right to an education, but he said the state Constitution does not require the Legislature to fund public education at a specific level. The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the state appeals court in San Francisco, and the court combined the two lawsuits into one.

Last week, the California School Boards Association released a report on public school spending levels: California’s Challenge:Adequately Funding Education in the 21st Century
The new figures updated the ones based on decade-old published studies, which the association submitted as evidence in the Robles case.

The new report asserts that the $64 billion that Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to spend on K-12 schools in the 2016-2017 school year to implement the Common Core, other state standards and to fulfill the eight priorities of the Local Control Funding Formula, would fall tens of billions of dollars short of what is needed for the state to ensure that every child has access to quality learning.

John Fensterwald contributed to this report.


Los Angeles School Privatizers Eye Run for Mayor's Office: Frustrated with the democratically elected school board, they see another path to power.

Steve Barr - Photo Credit:

January 28, 2016  ::  Proponents of turning half of Los Angeles’ public schools into privately run charter schools in five years have a brazen new strategy. After running into obstacles last fall at the locally elected school board overseeing America’s second-largest school district, they’re looking at capturing the mayor's office in 2017.

Steve Barr, who helped create the Green Dot Charter Schools group and has been involved in numerous controversial efforts to privatize the L.A. school system, has told local newspapers he is exploring a mayoral run due to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s hands-off approach to education.

“I’ve talked to at least a half-dozen people who will tell you he won’t get involved because it’s too controversial,” Barr told the Los Angeles Times, which reported that Barr, “wants to enter the race but will only do so if he can see a path to building a campaign with adequate political and financial backing.”

Some of the nation’s wealthiest billionaires, such as Los Angeles’ Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation, have eyed Los Angeles as a major target for privatizing traditional public schools in the next five years. Broad has floated a $490 million plan to transform the district with 4.5 million students (!), and Walton—funded by Walmart profits—have pledged spending $1 billion from 2016 to 2020 to expand charter schools in 15 cities, including Los Angeles.

Other California technology entrepreneurs—such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—have also pledged multi-millions to expand charters. They are no longer political newcomers, having been involved in both successful and unsuccessful charter-related campaigns in recent years. In other words, it’s likely that Barr’s campaign would find no shortage of major donors or “independent” backers.

The push to privatize L.A. schools has become increasingly politicized in recent years, with local school board elections becoming proxy battles for pro- and anti-charter sides. When privatizers ran into obstacles at the L.A. school board, they focused on other high-ranking posts, such as trying to influence the choice of the next city superintendent of schools.

“The concept amazes and angers me,” board member Scott Schmerelson said last fall about Broad’s proposal. “Far from being in the best interest of children, it is an insult to teaching and administrative professionals, an attack on democratic, transparent and inclusive public school governance and negates accountability to taxpayers.”

Barr’s would-be candidacy comes after years of trying to pressure the city school board to take pro-charter positions, including trying to create a parallel board of parents from charter schools as competitor to the traditional PTA, or parent teachers association.

A mayoral campaign would be his—and the privatizers—most brazen move yet.

  1.  ¿Brazen?  There's an interesting word!
  2.  LAUSD has 4.5 million students? Really?? So much for declining enrollment!  (LAUSD has  732,833 students, including adult ed.)

  • Peter Rabbit's father famously advised Peter that if he had nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all.
  • Frank Sinatra once told the press, referring to a individual whom he detested, that if they ever wanted to write something libelous or scanadalous about the person, they should feel free to attribute it to him.
  • My personal attitude about Steve Barr far closer to Sinatra's than Mr. Rabbit's.
The implication that Barr and the rest of the privatizer/$chool ®eform community act in concert mistakes that Barr is capable of being a team player or even a quiet conspirator. History teaches us otherwise - Barr is a self-promoting loose cannon on any and every deck - and because of that he and Donald Trump are dangerous.

Barr has “talked to at least a half-dozen people..." My guess is that they were all reporters. (The photo of Barr in the LATimes article cited above is a selfie - need I say more?)


Jan 28, 2016  ::  At the announcement that Michelle King had been promoted from deputy superintendent to the top leadership position at the huge and troubled Los Angeles Unified School District, the small throng gathered at district headquarters rose to its feet in applause.

The ovation was a "Survivor"-like salute to a member of the tribe. Here was someone who had navigated a high-stakes, politically treacherous enterprise in which, this year alone, 60,000 employees will spend more than $7 billion in taxpayer-supplied money to give 650,000 students a better chance at succeeding in life.

This very district, after all, had educated King since kindergarten. It provided her first job, as a teacher's aide, while she was still at Palisades High School. And for almost 30 years it has provided her livelihood.

Applause, however, doesn't necessarily mean she's the best person for the job.
If there's not much recent public evidence by which to evaluate King's suitability for one of the most important positions in education, it's because 10 years ago the district swallowed King into the upper reaches of its labyrinthine bureaucracy.

In a home movie of her life, that would be the point at which we switch from vibrant color into grainy black and white.

"It is hard to tell who's the real Michelle because she is always so dutiful to her bosses," said one source who requested anonymity. "I can't remember a time when she said: 'This is what I think.' It was always the party line."

King's earlier career provides some insight.

Take, for example, another show of support that came in 2002, when King walked into her first faculty meeting after being promoted from vice principal to principal at Hamilton High in Los Angeles' Palms neighborhood.

"The entire faculty burst into a standing ovation," says retired teacher Shelley Rose. "I've never seen it before or since."

Hamilton, it seems, had been tearing itself apart. The district had set up two magnet schools on the home campus as part of a strategy to lure back white students who had fled public schools. Some staff complained that the combined campus favored the wealthier, whiter magnets.

The staff already had confidence in King. As an assistant principal, she had "bridged all of the factions," says Merle Price, a former deputy superintendent.

As principal, she reassured the magnets that they could remain independent, while also addressing grievances from the neighborhood school, Price says.

She also began to even out class sizes, so that the magnets no longer had far fewer students.
"Michelle united the faculty, boosted morale, and righted the ship almost immediately," says Barry Smolin, an English teacher. "A lot of it had to do with her calm demeanor, her willingness to hear all sides of an issue and make informed decisions based on sometimes conflicting perspectives — and her genuine concern for students and teachers."

One way she showed that concern, former colleagues say, was by letting teachers with nonconformist styles do things their way — an approach that has been notoriously foreign to some administrators.
English teacher Dan Victor, now retired, remembers telling King that a schoolwide assembly she'd called conflicted with his plan to prepare students for an Advanced Placement test the next day.

"Why don't you do what you think is best," she said.

He kept his students in class.

At least by some important measures her approach worked.

In each of the three years before King became principal, Hamilton's test scores had fallen short of the state's target for how much the school was supposed to improve.

After she took charge, the scores surged well past these annual goals.

She didn't solve all of Hamilton's problems, though.

The home school continued to perform below the state average and a large divide remained between the higher scores of whites and more prosperous students and those of low-income blacks and Latinos.

That "achievement gap" remains one of the most significant challenges in the district she now runs.
In thinking of the forces that shaped her, King recalls the riots of 1992 when, as a young teacher, she stood in her hillside home in South Los Angeles' largely African American, largely upscale View Park neighborhood, watching large swaths of Los Angeles burn.

Her father had become a lawyer while she was still a child. Her mother worked for the county. Together they provided their daughter with a sheltered life.

"It was assumed and expected you would go to college," King says. "My father looked at my report cards. We were taught to respect our teachers and that we would get good grades."

She attended L.A. Unified schools, including Palisades High, where she was a top student and a cheerleader and one of the few blacks at a school whose student body was mainly wealthy and white.
After attending UCLA, her first teaching assignment was in the San Fernando Valley, a world apart from the worst poverty of the L.A. basin.

King was not oblivious to social ills, but her understanding deepened, she said, as she watched the video of police officers beating Rodney King, followed by the trial that acquitted them.

The community rage that followed made an impression, firing up a long-standing instinct to help foundering students push ahead.

In high school she'd become a student aide because she liked helping students who were struggling. She also tutored at UCLA.

Later, she moved through teaching jobs at Porter Junior High and Wright Middle School while shepherding her own three daughters through school.

Sometimes that meant making choices. The first time King was offered the principal's job at Hamilton she turned it down. Her marriage by then was in trouble, and, even after the divorce, King was determined not to miss back-to-school nights or lose the family's tradition of long Sunday dinners, at which the girls could talk out the issues of their lives, she says.

When one of her daughters wanted to attend a girls school, King enrolled her in the private Archer School in Brentwood.

King says that watching how the all-girl school empowered her daughter made her believe in the value of single-gender schools — an option she has said she wants to expand in L.A. Unified.

Beyond that, King hasn't detailed specific new initiatives she'll suggest for the district, nor has the school board articulated how it plans to measure her success.

In recent years, success has meant remaining in the background and carrying out orders.

"Michelle never really had a chance or opportunity to stand out or share her thoughts," says longtime PTA leader Scott Folsom. "She is always quiet in meetings. I have never heard her disagree with or question the company line."

King acknowledges this trait.

"I've always followed the direction of my superintendent," she says. "I might not agree with him, but ultimately I'm a soldier and it's their ship. It's their vision and I'm going to follow it."

And, she says, she's learned from each superintendent she's served.

As Supt. Ramon C. Cortines' chief of staff, and later as chief deputy superintendent, she learned to "communicate and communicate and overly communicate, particularly with the Board of Education."
As head of operations for Supt. John Deasy, who replaced Cortines, and then was replaced by him after resigning under pressure in October 2014, King learned from "his unrelenting focus on youth and poverty," she says.

King also cites two readings that have influenced her approach to management.

The first befits a former science teacher: "Turning Research Into Results" by Richard Edward Clark and Fred Estes.

"I believe you gather data before you strike out," King says.

The other is "Leadership from the Middle: A System Strategy" by Michael Fullan.

Even now that she's at the top, being in the middle is where she seems most comfortable.

Those who know her best describe a regular-gal charm, a "margarita buddy" who got visibly embarrassed at the raunchier parts of the Spike Lee-produced movie "The Best Man," a person who likes to bowl and is pretty good at it.

Colleagues say she's easy to be with, a team player.

King says her devotion to collaboration was instilled early, as a new UCLA graduate in an intern program that shoved an unproven teacher in front of a room of seventh-graders ready to test her.
That trial by fire seared something into her mind. If her colleagues hadn't rallied to support her, she could have failed, King says. It taught her that educators need to rely on each other.

She wants to apply that same lesson to a fractured school system with a team that now includes parents and district critics. That, she says, is why the board hired her.

"They have charged me with bringing the district together," she said.

  • Times staff writers Zahira Torres and Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.

Friday, January 29, 2016

MAGNET SCHOOLS: No longer famous, but still intact

Education Next Issue Cover

 smf: Sometimes the news isn't necessarily new ...from Spring 2005 

The LAUSD Magnet program is the legacy of Theodore T. "Ted" Alexander, Jr., for whom the Alexander Science and Math Magnet School in Exposition Park  is named. Alexander was responsible for district integration after a 1977 court order required Los Angeles schools to desegregate, a ruling that prompted a citywide fight over mandatory busing.

To help defuse community opposition to busing, Alexander supervised the establishment of magnet schools. The magnet campuses achieved integration by attracting students of all races from across the city with specialized classes that included science, journalism and curricula for the academically gifted. - from Alexander's LA Times obituary

By CHRISTINE H. ROSSELL - from Education Next | Spring 2005 / Vol. 5, No. 2|
The year was 1968. Martin Luther King had been assassinated, and American cities were erupting in flames because of King’s violent death and the decades-long smoldering resentments from racism. In a small city far away from the churning ghettos of Detroit and D.C., a small public school was about to enter the racial hubbub and become part of education history.
Reminiscent of scenes from the movie and musical Fame, which featured the High School of Music & Art and became a model for magnet schools, young musicians sing and play in a bathroom at La Guardia High School in Manhattan.
That fall, McCarver Elementary in Tacoma, Washington, hung out its shingle inviting students from anywhere in the city to enroll, breaking the link between school assignments and residential location and becoming the nation’s first “magnet” school. Thus began a nationwide experiment to integrate public schools using market-like incentives instead of court orders. (See sidebar, “In the Beginning.”)

The following year, 1969, the country’s second magnet school opened–this one, more appropriately, in Boston, soon to be an epicenter of the race-based school wars. But, like its West Coast counterpart, the William Monroe Trotter School, in Beantown’s poor Roxbury section, was built as “a showcase for new methods of teaching”–enough of a showcase, it was hoped, to attract white children to a black neighborhood for their schooling. It was an odd idea, but one whose time seemed to have come. Within a decade there would be hundreds of such magnet schools all over the country.

The idea was simple enough: draw white students to predominantly black schools by offering a special education with a focus on a particular aspect of the curriculum, such as performing arts, or Montessori, or advanced math, science, and technology. Federal and state agencies, anxious to avoid the growing messiness of coercive integration measures like forced busing, directed new resources toward these magnets, encouraging their pioneering academic programs and giving grants for new facilities. Glossy brochures were mailed to parents and press releases to local media. The hope was that these well-funded, themed schools would ignite a passion for learning as well as spark a movement to voluntarily integrate schools.

The names alone give a sense of the new schools’ range and optimism–the Thomas Pullham Creative and Performing Arts magnet (in Prince George’s County, Maryland), the Copley Square International High magnet (in Boston), the School 59 Science magnet (also called the “Zoo School,” in Buffalo), the Greenfield Montessori magnet school (in Milwaukee), the Central High School Classical Greek/Computers Unlimited magnet high school (in Kansas City). Even older and well-established “examination schools,” such as Boston Latin and City Honors (in Buffalo), would soon claim magnet status to avail themselves of new students and additional funds.

An Early Experiment in “Choice”

The first magnets appeared as the school desegregation battles were heating up. In 1969, the year William Monroe Trotter opened in Boston, a federal court ordered the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina to use busing to desegregate its schools. The use of crosstown busing to accomplish desegregation was unprecedented–and the case went right to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the highly controversial forced integration program in 1971. A federal district court in Boston, paying insufficient attention to the ideals of the Trotter school, introduced a forced busing program in 1974 that set off demonstrations and riots. The court order also prompted the city’s educators to include magnets in their formal, citywide forced busing plan the following year. Thus was born the first “forced busing plan with magnet options.”

Coming as they did, in the midst of several different national desegregation crises, early magnet schools offered a relatively uncontroversial–and peaceful–means of integrating schools. And the magnet movement got an early boost from two federal district court decisions in 1976, in the aftermath of the discord in Charlotte and Boston. In approving magnet-driven, voluntary desegregation programs in Buffalo and Milwaukee, the courts seemed more than willing to accept reasonable alternatives to the forced dissolution of geography-based school assignments.
Though it was another decade before the first southern school district (in Savannah) was allowed to desegregate its school system with a voluntary magnet-school plan, the new schools were soon opening almost everywhere–or, at least, everywhere that public school systems needed to stem the white-flight resegregation that was overtaking many urban school districts, mostly in the North. By 1981, there were some 1,000 such magnet schools in the United States; by 1991, there were over 2,400. (See Figure 1.)

These new schools proved to be a remarkably robust and popular trend in school choice. In a study I undertook in 1989, I found that 12 percent of the elementary and middle school magnet programs in my sample specialized in basic skills and/or individualized teaching; 11 percent offered foreign language immersion; 11 percent were science-, math-, or computer-oriented; 10 percent catered to the gifted and talented and 10 percent to the creative and performing arts; 8 percent were traditional, back-to-basics programs (demanding, for instance, dress codes and contracts with parents for supervision of homework); 7 percent were college preparatory; 7 percent were early childhood and Montessori. (The remaining preferences, each under 7 percent, included multicultural/international, life skills/ careers, and ecology/environment.) At the high school level, the programs tended to be either career-oriented (medical careers, law and criminal justice, communications and mass media, hotel and restaurant) or schools with some sort of entrance criteria. The Magnet Schools Association of America, based in Washington, D.C., reports a similar distribution of program themes in today’s magnet schools.

My analyses of the success of these magnets in actually attracting whites indicate that school structure and racial composition was important. Predictably, the most popular magnet school structure was a dedicated magnet, where everyone in the school had chosen it and all were in the magnet program. These “perfect” magnets, however, were the least common, because creating them requires that an entire school be emptied out and children assigned elsewhere or a new school be built. The next most popular magnet structure, and the most common today, is a program-within-a-school. Only students who chose the magnet program are in it, but there is also a neighborhood population assigned to the school that is not in the magnet program. The racial composition of the magnet program is different from the school that houses it and is usually around 50 percent white.

The least-popular magnet structure in black neighborhoods is a “whole-school-attendance-zone” magnet: everyone in the school is in the program, but the school has a neighborhood population assigned to it. That these schools and their magnet programs tend to have a racial composition closer to that of the neighborhood–majority minority–only reduces their attractiveness to whites. However, according to most surveys, although whites prefer majority white schools, a sizable, albeit smaller, number will choose schools where whites make up somewhat less than half of the student body.

Staying Power and an Evolving Mission

Even as courts across the country began releasing school districts such as Kansas City, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Savannah, Buffalo, and Boston from long-running desegregation orders during the 1990s, magnet schools continued to thrive. My 1991 randomized national sample of 600 school districts indicated that the 2,400 magnet schools in the United States were operating in 229 different school districts.

And it would appear that their ranks continue to swell despite the declining number of districts operating under court-ordered desegregation plans. The directory published by the Magnet Schools Association of America lists more than 3,000 magnet or theme-based schools as members.
With desegregation waning as a public goal, however, magnet schools have maintained support by attaching themselves to the school-choice movement. For instance, the Magnet Schools of America web site now makes a classic choice-based argument on behalf of magnet schools–that being allowed to choose a school will result in improved satisfaction that translates into better achievement. Thus, although proponents of magnet schools have not disavowed the desegregation goal that is the program’s roots, they currently place almost equal emphasis on magnets as instruments of school choice.

One of the reasons for the sustained growth of magnet schools is the federal government’s steady financial support for the idea. Magnet schools were originally funded as tools of desegregation under the Emergency School Assistance Act from 1972 to 1981. In 1981 they were folded into the Chapter 2 block-grant program, but explicit federal support for magnet schools as desegregation tools resumed in 1985 with the authorization of the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), included in the Education for Economic Security Act. Under the new program, however, magnet schools not only had to aid desegregation, but also had to focus on improving the quality of education in order to qualify for funds. The Magnet Schools Assistance Program still exists, now run by the Office of Innovation and Improvement in the Department of Education, and with the same twin goals of fostering integration and choice.

Funding for magnet schools is also part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, housed in the portion of the law bannered “Promoting Informed Parental Choice and Innovative Programs.” Funding has not kept pace with either inflation or the growth in magnet schools, but neither has it withered away. (See Figure 2.) The MSAP appropriation was $75 million in 1984, rose to $108 million in 1994, and remained at $108 million in 2004. Though the program falls under the law’s choice provisions, the federal government still considers magnets an important aspect of desegregation policy, defining a magnet school as one that “offers a special curriculum capable of attracting substantial numbers of students of different racial backgrounds.”

The Money Bite

Perhaps the greatest challenge to magnet schools now comes from fiscal constraints at the state level. Where desegregation has become a secondary goal, resource-rich magnet schools are often a target for cuts when money is tight. States such as Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan have challenged court-ordered desegregation plans in order to reduce their financial and legal liability. But even states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, and California that were never parties to a desegregation lawsuit have been cutting funds for magnet schools. The Prince George’s County, Maryland, school district, for example, eliminated magnet programs at 33 schools in the fall of 2004 because of state funding cutbacks. The only theme programs that will be kept are the Montessori, French immersion, and creative and performing arts, and they will no longer be called magnets.

Indeed, there is probably no school district with an extensive system of magnet programs that has not closed at least one or two magnets because of a budget crunch. In fact, many magnets are the victims of their own success: by the 1990s most neighborhood schools had the science labs and computer technology that had once made magnets unique. Even McCarver in Tacoma removed “magnet” from its name in 1998 and, as a result of No Child Left Behind, became a School in Need of Improvement.
Connecticut is an important exception to this trend, but that is because since 1996, the entire state has been under a state supreme court order to desegregate. Using a complicated formula approved by the court, the state funds magnet schools that accept students from several different districts (at a minimum there must be two) at a per-pupil rate that increases as the number of districts sending students increases–an attempt to bring central-city minority students and white suburban students together in the same school. Thus the scheme eschews outright racial quotas, but achieves some of the diversity that quotas would create.

Challenges for the Future

Though finances will always be a magnet school’s primary concern, the greatest threat to the magnet system going forward is the same as that which gave magnets their early jump-start: the courts. Even the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that school districts adopt a voluntary desegregation plan, for instance, may conflict with legal precedents set in most federal appeals courts. In 2001 only the federal appeals court covering the states of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont had upheld the use of race in student assignment or magnet school admissions in school districts not already under court order; it did so on the grounds that the state had a compelling interest in racial diversity. But even in that circuit, several school districts and one state (Connecticut) have continued to avoid the use of racial quotas in magnet admissions because they believe using them invites a legal challenge.
The 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing the use of racial quotas at the University of Michigan–but approving the use of race as one of many factors in admissions decisions–has had little impact on magnet schools, mainly because most had already abandoned the use of quotas. And most school districts now recognize that using explicit racial quotas in magnet admissions when desegregation orders have been lifted is risky. When the court-ordered desegregation plan in Prince George’s County was ended in 2002, the superintendent formed a panel of experts on magnet schools that was thought to be politically and ideologically diverse. Our task was to figure out what to do about magnet school admissions criteria.

All of us were in agreement that race could no longer be used in magnet admissions. We devised a plan in which the district was divided into three subdistricts of roughly similar racial and socioeconomic balance. Students, regardless of their race, could choose any magnet school in their subdistrict. We hoped that racially diverse student bodies would result from the individual choices of students, but there was no way to guarantee it. Since then, as noted above, state funding cuts have prompted the district’s administration to dramatically reduce the number of magnet schools, keeping only the most popular. Similar choices are being made in other districts, where some magnets survive while others are being closed.

Districts throughout the country are responding in one of two ways: either adopting a race-blind system of admissions, thus converting the magnet to a themed school of choice; or constructing a system whereby race is only one of several factors considered in admission. The former is more likely to happen in school districts that have very few whites left and in districts that have had strong appeals court opinions rejecting the use of race altogether. The latter is more likely to occur in school districts such as Fort Wayne, Indiana, that have enough whites left to actually integrate a number of magnet schools and where there has been no strong circuit court decision rejecting the use of race.
It is remarkable, perhaps, that despite the reduction in state funding and the elimination of explicit racial quotas, the total number of magnet schools has not declined. I would suggest three reasons for their resilience. First, the great triumph of the civil-rights movement was its success in getting whites to support the principle of racial diversity in the schools. In districts that still have enough whites to make integration feasible, magnet schools are viewed as an effective way to achieve that diversity, even in districts where court orders have been lifted or never existed. Second, magnet schools have been incorporated into the school choice movement as a means of improving achievement and into No Child Left Behind as a way of increasing the opportunities available to children in low-performing schools. Third, parents like school choice. Although undoubtedly there are some who enroll their children in a theme-based school in order to enable them to pursue a passion, most parents are probably interested in theme-based education as a means of igniting a passion. Magnets have thus developed strong constituencies locally and nationally and, for the foreseeable future, remain an important, if less often noticed, feature of the American education landscape.

  • Christine Rossell is a professor of political science at Boston University.

IN THE BEGINNING: How a Small City in the Pacific Northwest Invented Magnet Schools

by Alex Sergienko
Every once in a while things work out. That’s what it seems like today, as I look back to 1968, when my Tacoma, Washington, school district opened a magnet school.
Though Tacoma had only about 7,000 blacks–out of a total population of about 160,000–our minority housing, like that in many cities, was concentrated in one area and served by schools then in violation of our state’s de facto segregation rule. The worst “offender” was McCarver Elementary, which was 91 percent African-American.

In fact, we had begun work on segregation issues several years earlier. People were coming to school board meetings complaining about it, and one prominent board member was adamant about integration. We also had a citizens committee, with two African-American members, actively seeking solutions. And, like other cities, we had some racial disturbances in Tacoma after Martin Luther King’s assassination.

We knew we had to do something, but we also wanted alternatives to the coercive methods of integration, such as forced busing, that we saw being talked about elsewhere. That’s when we stumbled on an article about someone in Pittsburgh advocating the establishment of a school that would do something so well that students would want to enroll. They called it a “magnet school.” I’d never heard the term, but suddenly we envisioned McCarver as a school of excellence–good enough to pull in white students from the more affluent neighborhoods. We wrote a proposal, called the “Exemplary Magnet Program,” and in the summer of 1968 we received a $200,000 Title III grant to make it happen.

We then mounted a huge recruitment effort, enlisting counselors from our summer program to make home visits (to talk to parents) and had administrators make calls to the district’s best teachers. We said again and again that we would use exemplary practices, such as team teaching and “continuous progress”–and it worked. Some very good teachers signed up. And we brought in the most popular principal, then at the best elementary school in town, to run things.

With luck, a lot of work, and some key support from members of the upscale North End community, we were able to draw kids from all over, even from suburban schools on the other side of Puget Sound. And we opened that September with a minority enrollment of 64 percent, a 27-point turnaround in just four months. Instead of 50 white kids, we had almost 200.

By 1970, African-American enrollment at McCarver was less than 50 percent, and we had a waiting list for parents seeking to enroll their children.

After 36 years, I’m still struck by what we were able to get done. It is wonderful to think that good things can be accomplished in this world.

  • Alex Sergienko was an assistant superintendent of schools in Tacoma when McCarver started its magnet program. His grandson Max is a 7th grader at a magnet school, in Portland, Oregon, with “a Japanese emphasis.”