The Pull of Magnets
The weight of social science evidence demonstrates that racially diverse schools are associated with achievement in math and reading for Latino and African-American students, with more advanced critical thinking skills, intellectual engagement and a reduction in racial stereotyping. Learning challenges that may be related to stress, poverty, health problems or neighborhood violence, researchers are starting to understand, may be more effectively overcome in schools that are not sharply segregated by race and class.
The decades of findings on these points have led to something rare in social science—a consensus. In 2007 the National Academy of Education wrote, "In summary, the research evidence supports the conclusion that the overall academic and social effects of increased racial diversity are likely to be positive. Racial diversity per se does not guarantee such positive outcomes, but it provides the necessary conditions under which other educational policies can facilitate improved academic achievement, improved intergroup relations, and positive long-term outcomes."
Meanwhile, there is no consistent evidence and certainly no research consensus that charter schools, just by virtue of being charter schools, do any better, on average, than traditional public schools. A 2009 study conducted in Boston returned typical results. Some charters there did better than the traditional public schools, and some did worse. A study of charters in Minnesota, which has the nation's oldest system of charters, found that students in charters generally did less well on achievement tests than similar students in public schools. That study, conducted by the University of Minnesota–based Institute on Race and Poverty, also found that charter schools tended to worsen segregation levels in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Researchers concluded that "although a few charter schools perform well on standardized tests, most offer low income parents and parents of color an inferior choice—a choice between low-performing traditional public schools and charter schools that perform even worse."
A 2005 study from the Economic Policy Institute found that in Florida, Michigan, Texas and Pennsylvania, students in charter schools that had been operating for more than three years did no better on state tests than public school students did. The number of charter schools, however, has more than doubled over the past decade, from about 2,300 in 2001 to nearly 5,000 now. According to Magnet Schools of America, there are about 4,000 magnet schools in the United States, enrolling about 2.5 million students.
That charters do not upset the stratified structure of public education—i.e., they tend to leave white kids in "white" schools and African-American students in identifiable "black" schools—may be exactly what makes them, at first glance, appear politically neater than magnet schools. After all, if magnets work as intended, they absolutely will alter the status quo of entrenched residential segregation by allowing kids of differing racial backgrounds to pursue opportunity across man-made boundaries. (As even magnet advocates are quick to point out, not all magnets are racially diverse. Those that are not, diversity advocates argue, should not be the ones that are rewarded with federal dollars.)
There is no sign that the administration might be open to rethinking its infatuation with charters. However, the mission of magnet schools seems to be in line with the administration's recently and clearly articulated concerns about racial segregation and concentrated poverty—creating an opening for advocates to press for magnet school funding increases beyond what the administration has already proposed.
In March, Secretary Duncan stood at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and reiterated a statement Barack Obama had made in Philadelphia as a presidential candidate: "Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools. We still haven't fixed them fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education—and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today's black and white students."
Similarly, at a Black History Month celebration recently, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan stated even more clearly a commitment to reducing segregation and concentrated poverty. "The neighborhoods of concentrated poverty we see in communities across America didn't result in spite of government—but in many cases because of it," Donovan said, touting the administration's "commitment to building more inclusive communities." He added that "we expect communities receiving federal funding to end practices that limit diversity and start promoting stable, inclusive communities."
Civil rights groups view magnet schools as a potentially good offering for an "inclusion"-seeking Democratic administration to carry across the legislative aisle. Magnets embody "choice," and so should win support from conservatives who advocate free-market solutions for public schools. Magnet schools' survival hinges on their knack for "innovation," as educators must create curricular themes that attract families. As public schools, magnets are "accountable" and are judged on results from state-administered tests. Modern buzzwords apply, but at heart magnets remain civil rights–era remedies to structural inequality. Even if they aren't shiny and new, magnets might come close to that rare mix of having something for everyone.
"I hear about other schools that are all-black or all-white trying to teach about how the society is diverse and trying to get it through to kids that they have to understand other perspectives," says Lorna Shipp-Parmlee, who has three children attending magnets who ordinarily would have been assigned to high-poverty schools in their predominantly black Hartford neighborhood. "But when you are in a school that really is diverse, you aren't learning diversity—you are actually living it."