Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Magnet Schools and Racial Segregation

Last week, I blogged about one person's fear that the Richardson ISD (RISD) is restricting enrollment at one elementary school to students who speak Spanish. (That person was misinformed, but it did prompt some good discussion about the RISD's enrollment policy.) Yesterday, I blogged about the efforts of the RISD to get out from under decades-old federal court supervision regarding racial segregation.

All this talk made me wonder about the effects of magnet schools in Richardson. After the jump, what I always thought the purpose of magnet schools was and what now has me questioning that.

I always thought magnet schools served three purposes, one of which RISD talked about openly and two of which were, let us say, lesser discussed side benefits.

  • The obvious purpose for magnet schools is the one the RISD highlights on its website: "Magnet schools offer attractive enhancements and enriched curriculums in specific buildings throughout RISD. Our magnet programs combine proven instructional methods with cutting edge experiences in areas such as math, science, the arts, communication, law, leadership, foreign language, technology and creativity."

  • A secondary objective (or at least one that I inferred) is to provide the district with flexibility in balancing attendance across its many schools. If one school is overcrowded, a magnet school elsewhere can attract some of that overflow away from the overcrowded school. Likewise, if another school has excess classroom space, making it into a magnet school can help attract students to fill those empty seats.

  • The last objective (also inferred) is to help reduce racial segregation. Just like the judicious location of magnet schools can help balance the number of students in each school, it can also be used to increase the racial diversity in each school. At least that's what I always thought. But can it? Because attendance at magnet schools is voluntary, could it be that parents are self-selecting the schools their children attend in a way that results in less racial diversity in individual schools, not more? Church attendance is also voluntary. Martin Luther King, Jr., is credited with saying that "Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of Christian America." Is it possible that Richardson's voluntary magnet schools, instead of promoting diversity, are unintentionally increasing segregation? Scarier thought: is it possible that this effect is not entirely unintentional? Someone say it ain't so.

Like I said, only the first purpose is spelled out by the RISD itself. It's an unquestionable good. The second purpose seems to be simply a practical benefit to save the district from having to build classrooms in one neighborhood while classrooms sit empty in another. It's that third objective that now has me doubting myself. I haven't read any of the court documents relating to the RISD's efforts to get out from under federal court supervision, so I don't know what the RISD is telling the courts. Are magnet schools designed to play a positive role in RISD's efforts there? If so, I now have to wonder whether the law of unintended consequences might be working against that goal.