Monday, January 24, 2005

NARN FOLLOW-UP -- More on Magnet Schools

Posted by Craig Westover | 6:44 PM |  

The phones were ringing during the information-packed 1 to 2 PM hour of the NARN program on AM 1280 "The Patriot" this past Saturday. A discussion about education in Minnesota -- especially one focused on school choice -- will do that. I thought it odd but interesting that two callers focused on concerns about the high cost of Magnet Schools. I was also puzzled by this comment from Al Winter on the NARN web site --
Hey, you guys need to brush up on the school choice issue. The liberals have hi-jacked the choice concept and are using it to bring the radical leftist worldview into public schools. I'm disappointed that you are taking the side of the left.
I emailed Al asking him to elaborate. And indeed he did. His email follows, followed in turn by some comments from Elizabeth Mische, executive director of the Partnership for Choice in Education.

Welcome to KindgergartenI think we're all -- Al, Liz, and myself -- on the same page here. Persistence parents like Al and people of purpose like Liz are not about to let kids be "assimilated" into a Borg-like government-managed school system. Reading these two emails, one thing should be very clear -- school choice is not a Democrat/Republican Conservative/Liberal partisan issue -- at least not when the people involved are genuinely concerned with educating kids not protecting their political interests or the status quo. School choice -- providing the best education for Minnesota children regardless of how that education is delivered -- is real common ground.

The second caller on magnet schools wrongly accused Liz of "ducking the question." As Al's email indicates there was a lot more behind the question than was evident and what's presented here is an honest attempt to keep the dialog going. Additional questions and comments are always welcome.

Text of Email from Al Winter, Buffalo, Minnesota

Craig,

First of all, I don't believe that true school choice is a villain. My wife and I made our "choice" by sending our children to a Catholic elementary school. What has happened is the left has again hi-jacked a conservative concept and is now using school choice as the vehicle to implement "progressive" education philosophy and curriculum.

I've been conducting research on the Northwest Suburban Integration School District #6078 for the better part of a year now. I live in the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose-District and we are included in the seven district collaborative that was founded in 2001 after passage of the new Minnesota Desegregation Rule.

The district (NWSISD) plans to start six new magnet schools in four of the member districts claiming they will alleviate "racial isolation". Our district along with the Rockford district is starting magnet programs with an "Arts" theme. The NWSISD recommended that our district (Buffalo) along with the Rockford District do NOT become host sites for magnet schools-our school boards went ahead and did it anyway.

One must look at the details of the teamed programs, how they were chosen, and case history of choice programs including magnet schools before gleefully jumping on the bandwagon. The NWSISD and our own district chose program strands that don't necessarily reflect the choices parents made when surveyed about possible magnet school options. To make matters worse, they (NWSISD) chose a program, the International Baccalaureate Program (IBO) that wasn't even offered as a choice on the first survey. (By the way, when school districts conduct surveys, if they don't like the results they change the survey format and questions until they get the desired response.)

The IBO program was developed in Europe and is wholly internationalist in theme and content. As a matter of fact, our tax money is going to construct and equip replica United Nations General Assembly rooms in two NWSISD magnet schools. These rooms will be complete with many technological bells and whistles and of course flags from around the world.

They claim to "overlay" the IBO curriculum with Minnesota Academic Standards and any local standards, however when you read the details, the IBO really holds the power through their accreditation standards that must be met and verified each year.

The Arts strand that is being planned for our district actually had a 3% favorable rating among parents in our district. About 78% of the parents surveyed wanted academically-based magnet programs, if they were to happen.

In the NWSISD Federal Grant application to the Magnet School Assistance Program (MSAP) dated August 31, 2004, a report is cited that states "magnet schools cost districts up to 25% more to operate than traditional schools".

Do kids really test better and have a better chance of success in magnet or choice schools? Yes, they probably do. You must consider the factors involved. First, a lot of children that attend these schools come from homes that have parents who are actively involved in their children's education. Second, there is a sort of "creaming" effect that takes place in that children with higher potential, usually because of socio-economic advantages, are taken out of the traditional schools, leaving children that are less apt to be highly successful. In effect you dilute the traditional school's potential.

Is it fair then to spend more of the public money on students in choice schools over those left in traditional schools? What about those families where both parents work? They may even have an extra job to make ends meet. Can they afford the extra money to participate in a magnet program miles away? Can they be active in the school if their children are attending a school 20-30 miles from their home?

We have a "choice" elementary school in our local school district. It's been operating for about seven years. Last year the board wanted to make plans to expand it into a new school building that was being built. I led a campaign to stop the board last spring and to this point have been successful. The "choice" elementary school in our district was costing taxpayers over 30% more on a per student basis than the other four "traditional" elementary schools. It's focus was environmentalism and community service/involvement. The new school would have been a full-blown environmental school, probably with an IBO twist.

In addition, I analyzed the test scores for both the MCA's and Basic Skills and found that the students did not perform significantly higher in the choice school. As a matter of fact, the most challenged school in our district, by that I mean the one with the most minority and free/reduced lunch students, actually out performed the choice school in Math and was within a couple of points in Reading!!

Ironically, there was a competing proposal presented for the established "choice program". The Core Knowledge Proposal was presented by a group of over 60 teachers from our district. The board never anticipated competition from within the district. Even though the proposal to expand the current choice program only had about 10 supporting signatures, the Core Knowledge proposal, with it's 60 signatures, was never considered by the school board.

I know what you're thinking. How good can a proposal be if teachers are supporting it in such large numbers. Well, the culture war is alive and kickin' here in the Buffalo District. These 60 teachers had presented a program that even a conservative like me appreciated.

The left has figured out a way to use school choice to implement program themes and curriculum that you and I may not want or even feel comfortable paying for with our taxes. The survey says, parents want straight-forward academic education without all the fancy program theme names. Yep, they got us taxpayers paying for schools with themes and curriculum most parents don't want.

Is school choice the answer for what's ailing our education system? I'm really not the one to make that deacon but I think people had better start researching and looking at the programs that are being started. Are we developing an elitist system of education opportunities for our children and working families? Is it fair (or even American) to run from the problem with tax money and special programs?

Doesn't it make you wonder when the Dems start supporting a conservative concept?

I know this probably is more than you wanted but it is very important. You may want to find a copy of the November-December edition of the Pro-Family News. There's a story about the Buffalo District in the issue.

Thanks for wanting to learn more. There's much more that I haven't talked about, including the formation of the Super School Districts called Integration Districts. They're really not that much about integration, it's more about a fundamental change in education philosophy.

Al Winters
Buffalo


Comments from Elizabeth Mische Executive Director of Partnership for Choice in Education

This democrat shares many of your writer's concerns, though perhaps for different reasons.

But before I say more, let's briefly address the issue of "creaming" -- what parent wouldn't want (and dutifully work to get) the school best suited to her own child? I am only slightly sympathetic to those who claim that less able kids will be left behind in traditional, unproductive schools. If schools can serve the needs of children in the way best suited to them, why would that school be inferior? Bear in mind that I want a core knowledge-style curriculum for every kid through graduation, with the other specializations being "electives." I don't believe that teaching to the middle serves anyone very well -- including the middle.

Why shouldn't parents who want an internationalist curriculum have access to it? And why ought not those who despise it have access to something else. What your writer points out is that choice controlled by the Borg is not much choice at all. So break up these districts. There is something inherently racist in our current de-seg efforts: no one believes white kids can't learn in a school full of white middle class or laborer kids -- so why do we assume that racial "isolation" is the culprit in browner kids having lousy school experiences?

Your correspondent needs access to schools that are not controlled by the Borg -- and not controlled by a school board too-often dominated by those seeking "higher" office, or grinding their own axe, or promoting the interests of a family member employed in the system.

Public school choice is the fa├žade of choice; the school choice you and I are talking about is quite different, and would allow the writer to access schools that inculcate the values and (within rational boundaries) knowledge he seeks for them -- the language in Minnesota's statute that gives parents primary responsibility for obtaining the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for effective citizenship is a harsh duty. It means no one ought to be compelling others to attend schools they despise.

But that's a tricky deal: liberals have to be willing to yield to the distinct cultures they say they defend, and conservatives have to be willing to allow the liberty they say they promote.
Liz's last sentence sums up the school choice issue as well as it can be done. The question is "Do we, parents and concerned citizens, have the persistence and the courage to not only bring about school choice, but to build on the results and to live with the consequences?"

Worth a deeper look, eh?