Sunday, January 16, 2005

The competition to get into the magnet schools of the Los Angeles school district has gotten so strong that parents are now forced to apply expecting not to get in, but hoping to pile up enough rejection points so that when their child is in middle school they will have enough points to get into the desired school.
Because of high demand, the district selects students by computer, using a complicated points system that awards more points to students whose neighborhood schools are overcrowded or located in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Under stringent racial guidelines, each magnet school should be 60% to 70% minority and 30% to 40% white.

But that system has created a number of quirky side effects. Because the district doles out points to children who have been rejected in years past, many parents try to play a game with the system, applying to longshot schools in the hope of being rejected so they can acquire points for later use. And the parents of multiracial students are counseled by some administrators on how to identify their children based on the ethnic needs of a particular school.

Now, nearly three decades after the magnet program began, approximately 53,500 students attend magnet programs. That includes about 20% of the district's Asian students and 16% of whites. Only 4.6% of Hispanic students — the district's largest ethnic group — are enrolled in magnet schools.

In a district where more than 90% of students are minorities, some critics wonder whether the racial breakdowns used by the magnet program have outlived their purpose.

"It's kind of ironic," said Ryane Straus, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine who is writing her dissertation on the use of magnet schools for desegregation in L.A. Unified. "We have this policy for desegregation, and now it benefits whites and Asians — more than blacks and Latinos — even though they are more likely to go to college anyway."
Isn't it about time to examine whether such a system is the best way to distribute children into schools? If these schools are so desirable, why not create more of them to satisfy the demand? If the reason is because they are too expensive then why are some children allowed to get this more expensive, desirable education and the great majority are not? No school system should be so complicated that parents are forced to try to game the system. I taught in a magnet school for many years and saw some similar shenanigans going on. Now, I teach in a charter school and parents regularly try to find some secret way to get their children into our school. There is nothing I can say to them. We have a pure lottery and the only guarantee is if you have a sibling at the school.

Having taught in both a public and a charter school and having sent my daughters to both types of school, I can honestly say that I wouldn't trade away the charter for the public school either as a parent or a teacher. There is absolutely no comparison.

The solution would be to establish more charter schools that would satisfy the demand. But our state in its finite wisdom has capped the number of charter schools it will allow. They make the entrance barriers to creating a charter so high that few but the most ambitious and dedicated dare to attempt it. The fact that we could fill our school twice over with students shows that there is indeed a demand for a quality, demanding high school. Lift the cap and someone will do their best to establish such a school in the area.