No Man’s Land

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As I have mentioned in a previous post, I work at a magnet school. In anti-school privatization circles I have been surprised to see some criticism of magnet schools. It confused me that some would lump charter and magnet schools together. After attending the Magnet Schools of America annual conference and witnessing some of the magnet policies being practiced in other states and districts, I get it now. In some places magnets have started to resemble charter schools in all the worst ways.

Steven Singer had a recent blog post in which he described the co-opting of legitimate educational reform by those who wish to privatize and profit from public schools. His analogy is that of the cuckoo bird that sneaks its egg into another bird’s nest. I think another apt analogy is that of convergent evolution. Convergent evolution is when unrelated organisms following different evolutionary paths develop adaptations that have similarities. One example is the similar wing structures of bats, birds, and insects. While these structures appear similar, they have very different origins and possibly very different futures as well.

While charter schools, magnet schools, and the school privatization movement may appear similar to the casual observer, they have very different origins and futures. Despite the rosy picture painted by charter school advocates  both charter schools and school privatization have deep roots in the White response to school desegregation efforts (see here and here. Today’s charter schools have strayed very far form any utopian vision of charter schools as places for teacher freedom and innovation. Charters have mostly been co-opted by the forces of school privatization with openly for-profit schools, privately managed schools, and schools that are ostensibly non-profit but with huge salaries for questionably large numbers of “directors.”

In many places including my state, charter schools are still serving as way for White families to avoid more diverse school environment. This report shows that one-fifth of all charter schools in NC are 90% or more White. It concerns me greatly that liberal education reformers seem to be unconcerned that there is so much similarity between their reform agenda the privatization agenda on the right. Look, if an education reform policy has any similarity to what the GOP is doing in NC, then it is past time to reconsider exactly how social justice is being addressed and how those policy actions are actually impacting students of color and disadvantaged students.

Magnets, however, have almost the opposite origin (see here and here). They were designed to encourage voluntary desegregation by offering unique and specialized programs at school that would not otherwise house a diverse student population. Magnets are governed by the local school district are often developed based on community input and frequently highlight the resources unique to the area.

However, some districts seem to have taken the approach of “if you can’t beat them, join them” and have evolved magnet systems that resemble charter schools in the most undesirable ways. At the recent MSA conference, I attended a presentation for one school that is a prime example. This school is a Pre-K through 12 magnet school, so the primary entry point is Pre-K, however there is a fee for Pre-K and transportation is not provided at any grade. The PowerPoint presentation stated that elementary students must maintain a 2.0 GPA or they must return to their base school. I was not aware that elementary students had GPAs and I could write another post entirely on how developmentally inappropriate that is. (I must say that in a later conversation with the school principal, he denied that there were academic requirements below middle school, but that information was definitely in the presentation that he was not present for). There was also no clarity on the school’s grading policy to understand if or how student grades correlated to student mastery of material or evidence of higher order thinking.

The administrators admitted that they counseled out those that required extensive Exceptional Children’s services since this academically rigorous environment was “not the most appropriate setting for the child” and those children would “not be able to benefit from the school environment.” This was probably the most troubling aspect of the school for my colleagues and I. Thousands of public schools successfully meet the needs of both gifted and disadvantaged learners everyday. Despite their horn tooting, this school was not facilitating any more rigor than many comprehensive public schools. Yes, differentiation is a challenge, but it is one that many teachers successfully rise to everyday. To imply that EC students cannot benefit from a rigorous curriculum or that somehow less academically able students hold others back flies in the face of educational research that shows just the opposite; and frankly is simply lazy pedagogy. The school described is magnet theme as “rigorous academics” Isn’t that the “theme” of every school? They justified both this stance on EC and academic requirements by the fact there were so many other excellent schools to choose in the district. Perhaps that is true, but then how exactly are we defining school “choice?”

Magnets and charters were never intended to be the “choice” of a good school versus a bad one.

As charters have complicated the landscape of public schooling, magnets have often found themselves left in no man’s land. In my district, about 40% of students attend magnet programs, all with transportation provided. An independent audit found that our magnets are highly successful. Yet there are still school board members, district leaders, and segments of the community that seem to be rethinking them. As resources grow scarce the higher cost of magnets attract attention. The cost of magnet transportation alone in our district is about $1.7 million. (What say all you billionaire school choice advocates? A small gift of just $1.7 million dollars to keep quality school choice alive in an urban district…? Hmm…)

Our district has been dramatically impacted by charters (see this excellent article) with the 14th charter school (or 15th, I am starting to loose count) opening soon as well as additional charters in the surrounding counties that students can attend—all in a district of less than 50,000 school aged children. There is a variety of evidence to suggest that most area charters are skimming off easier to educate students and catering to White flight. While census data tell us that Durham County is about 40% White, the public school system is now only 18%. Some in my community seem to have concluded that magnets also skimming, though the actual facts don’t bear that out. Magnets in my district serve only a slightly lower percentage of economically disadvantaged students, are seeing faster growth in Latino students than the traditional schools, and some, like my school, serve a significantly higher percentage of EC students than the district average. No magnets in our district have entrance criteria.

Currently, the burden of charter school funding has contributed to a financial crisis in our district. If the presence of so many charter schools leads our district to abandon some or all of our own quality choice programs, parents will be left with fewer options, not more. Many of the area charters do not offer transportation or lunch making them an unrealistic option for many. There is also no stability or certainty as the charter schools can and do close mid-year, a greater possibility as the number of charters outgrows the demand. The market is close to saturated already with some insiders at charter schools quietly confiding they now struggling to fill seats when they used to have long waiting lists—yet there are still more charters in the pipeline for the area.

For those that believe that education reform should be about market forces and the local district simply has to innovate, exactly how does a school district respond to the market force that boils down to White parents that simply don’t want their kids in schools with black and brown children…? Do you really want to see what is at the end of that rabbit hole? Ironically, in places like Durham, the movement for greater school choice may actually end up limiting the choices available to parents and pushing us further down the path towards even more inequitable schools.

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4 thoughts on “No Man’s Land

  1. The problem isn’t reform, it’s racism. In most places charter schools serve mostly minority kids. North Carolina is a tragic outlier. Having lived in Durham for five years with fond memories of the music and the culture, it pains me to see this.

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    • Regardless, reform made this all possible and reform will not solve the problem of racism either. Racism is not systemic, it is endemic and will affect any system that is put in place. It is time to stop pushing education reform that is one size fits all. The unintended consequences of charters and testing are beginning to disenfranchise mores students than they have helped.

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    • Peter, let me also add that a number of those charters in our state receive funds from the philanthropists you work with. Perhaps it is time for those funders to consider community impact more carefully before funding any and all charters schools.

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  2. The whole notion of competing for children is misguided. It undermines cooperation and guarantees continued inequity. Who wants public school to act like Apple and Microsoft? Educators will have more reason to withhold best practices by being proprietary about what works so that they can maintain their competitive edge in the war for the best kids. That was not the purpose of charters.

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