Monday, June 6, 2016

The Double-Edged Blade of Magnet Schools

The big news out of the May 31 school board meeting was that the Richardson ISD decided to build two new elementary schools in Lake Highlands, one at Walnut Hill Rd and White Rock Trail and another to serve the area bounded by I-635, Abrams Rd and Royal Ln.

But something else was in the announcement, the ninth of nine bulleted action items, that deserves more attention than it will probably get: "Expand Northlake Elementary to include magnet programming if evaluation determines demand exists."

Magnet schools are the Swiss Army knife of space needs planning.

They are flexible. They can be created at will. Attendance can be expanded or shrunk as classroom space permits. Eligibility rules can be adapted as needed to get the desired results.

They are popular. Many families are attracted to schools that promise an enhanced curriculum in math, science, the arts, classical studies, etc.

They are voluntary. Magnet schools draw families rather than force them to attend certain schools. They avoid the protests inevitably provoked by coercive policies like attendance boundary changes.

They produce desired results. One result is to balance enrollments. Entice students from overcrowded schools to attend schools that have unused capacity. Presumably, that is what is behind the RISD considering adding magnet programs to Northlake Elementary.

Another, less publicized goal of magnet schools is to increase racial/ethnic/socio-economic diversity in schools. If a school district is geographically segregated, then mixing up the enrollment by enticing students to cross attendance boundaries to attend magnet schools can result in a more diverse enrollment at each school.

But because magnet school enrollment is voluntary, achieving racial/ethnic/socio-economic diversity is tricky. The blade on the Swiss Army knife is double-edged. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some families of higher socio-economic status are using the magnet schools (e.g., MST, Arapaho Classical) to escape neighborhood schools with lower socio-economic attendance (e.g., Dover, Richardson Heights). If this practice is widespread, RISD might be causing the decline of neighborhood schools rather than fostering diversity.

This is a concern I expressed in a 2012 post about the purposes of magnet schools. I'm afraid I'm no more knowledgeable today than I was then about whether this is what is going on. To decide, I need demographic data. I need survey data. What's the diversity at each school today? How many students attend the school in their home attendance zone? How many cross attendance zones to attend magnet schools? For each such transfer, is the neighborhood school and the magnet school more or less diverse before or after the transfer? How many attend private school? How many, if magnet schools weren't an option, would opt to attend private school instead, or perhaps move out the RISD altogether?

I've never seen this kind of data. Maybe I'm just not looking in the right place. Or maybe the RISD doesn't consider this question worthy of analysis. After all, like I said, magnet schools are popular. Raising questions about segregation, either intentional or voluntary, is not. The issue is potentially a powder keg. There's no incentive for the RISD to blow up the powder keg itself. And the powder keg is unlikely to blow up on its own if, in fact, it's the privileged families who are benefiting the most.

Where does that leave us? With the unsettling possibility that for all the good that magnet schools can do, their blade might be cutting both ways. They might be enabling voluntary segregation. They might be causing decline in neighborhood schools. And we wouldn't know because we haven't asked the right questions. But now we're moving in a direction that will result in adding yet another magnet school in Lake Highlands. Maybe we shouldn't make that decision without looking at the whole picture.