How magnet schools slide under the radar when it comes to the debate around school choice

by Cheryl Kirk

There is one type of school choice that rarely attracts the kind of scrutiny and controversy faced by charter schools and voucher programs: Magnet schools.

Our magnet schools are run by the Indianapolis Public Schools, but they rarely face criticism for the same practices that many people blame on charter schools. Both charters and magnets feature complicated, time-consuming applications and too few seats for students ultimately chosen by lottery.

Chalkbeat Indiana has done a series of stories on school segregation in the Indianapolis schools, and it turns out magnet schools are making our schools more segregated, not less segregated—which is the whole reason magnet schools were created.

“One of the best, most sought-after public schools in Indiana is nestled in a failing urban school district… 
This school, Center for Inquiry School 84, stands above the tumultuous reputation of Indianapolis Public Schools. It boasts an intensely rigorous curriculum. Experienced teachers. National awards for excellence.
But, even though it’s a magnet school, not all IPS students have an equal shot at this bright spot in urban education. Instead, School 84 is a rare haven of excellence carved out primarily to attract the children of white, wealthy families. 
District officials defend School 84 as a critical piece of a plan to keep affluent whites from leaving IPS, a problem faced by urban districts across the United States. They blame society’s self-segregation for creating a school of 331 white students and 22 black students in a district that is 80 percent non-white.”

In Indianapolis, most of the magnet schools are located in mostly white and affluent neighborhoods, so the children who live in those neighborhoods are given preference in the admission lottery. This makes it even harder for the parents of poor and minority children who want to move their children from a failing public school to another traditional school providing a quality education.

The Indianapolis school system recently changed some rules to address segregation in magnet schools. The district made the preference boundaries surrounding the magnet schools smaller to make them accessible to diverse families outside the immediate neighborhood. The district is also relaxing application deadlines, so there are now several times to apply before all seats are filled. During the investigation of this issue it was noted that low-income and minority families are not aware of the early application dates and therefore miss out on applying.

Indiana has left our poor and minority students without a quality education even as it provides a quality education for predominantly white privileged students in the same school district. I am thrilled the Indianapolis district is taking real steps to make a quality education accessible for more children, but we also must admit that there are thousands of Indianapolis children still trapped in failing schools.

I am a choice parent, and having exercised my ability to choose the best education for my children, I believe that charter schools and school voucher programs empower parents. It enables me to look at options beyond what is offered at my local traditional schools, including magnets.

My children started out at a charter school on the south side that was a great fit for our family until my children entered high school. During the course of high school, my now 16-year-old twins took free high school summer courses at a local charter school and a low-cost online summer class at our district school, even though both have been enrolled in a private Christian school since their freshman years.

These options gave my 16-year-old son the option to have a second period math class as a freshman, and an extra study hall during football season his next two years. School options enabled my 16-year-old daughter to take summer classes that set her up to apply to some of the top engineering and business colleges next year. These options enabled me to send my 4th grader to the same school as my juniors, and this works well for our family.

Opponents of school choice say that private and parochial schools can choose the best and the brightest if they see fit and not admit students who need extra help. But it seems as if the Indianapolis Public Schools is doing exactly that.  I’m a parent with a child who struggles with academics but was still admitted to a private Christian school. I am a testament that all private and parochial schools do not only take the best and the brightest.

Even though there are not enough seats in the Indianapolis Public School magnet schools for all who apply, it is a big step to offer the chance at a better education to those lucky enough to win a seat. This is why school choice in Indiana should continue to give parents such as myself options to help our children succeed. 

Photo courtesy of Chalkbeat Indiana.