Home equity, educational equity

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Regrettably, it sometimes takes concern about the middle class to get school boards to invest in quality. That’s what happened some 20 years ago, when Waller High School was converted into Lincoln Park High School, and nearby LaSalle, Newberry and Franklin elementary schools became specialty schools. Better late than never. While these programs were designed to keep or lure the middle-class, they benefit low-income kids, too. For example, almost half the children who attend those four North Side magnet schools are low-income. At Lincoln Park, the number of low-income students is higher than the number that attended Waller before the turn-around began.

The Richard Daley who is mayor today recognizes that to maintain a solid middle class, the city needs a good public school system. The board and chief executive officer he appointed, accordingly, are working for what CEO Paul Vallas calls a “wall-to-wall” upgrade. With the exception of early spending on capital improvements, they get high marks for equity. Schools in all kinds of neighborhoods are being targeted for high-level academic programs. While keeping and attracting the middle class is a top priority, school leaders have poured the most resources into schools in poverty areas. Even in the mayor’s backyard, the administration has taken care to protect the prerogatives of the public-housing parents who have sent their children to South Loop School for the last 10 years while the middle-class parents in Dearborn Park and its environs stalked off to find schools elsewhere. As Associate Editor Dan Weissmann reports, the board is striving for a win-win resolution of that ongoing struggle.

There’s a chance, however, that the proposed new limits on enrollment in magnet schools may reduce the access of low-income children to high-quality programs.

When the administration started public hearings, the set-aside area was a one-mile radius, and the percentage of seats to be set aside was 30. Within those limits, the magnet schools that would have been affected most are those along the north lakefront and in gentrifying areas around the Loop. Generally, those schools fall short of drawing 30 percent of their students from within a mile. In contrast, magnet schools in other areas tend already to meet that original set-aside goal. As the hearings ended, the set-aside area had changed to 1.5 miles, and the percentage, for starters, to 15. As CATALYST goes to press, data are not available on what that would mean for individual schools.

Magnet schools are deserving of much more study and debate than they got. On the plus side, they help keep middle-income families in the city, while providing a good education to low-income kids as well. However, they pull more motivated families away from neighborhood schools. Also on the plus side, kids can be bused to them, which promotes stable enrollment. But busing also means that the schools are less connected to their neighborhoods. The Desegregation Monitoring Commission put the brakes on the administration’s initial set-aside plan; now it should delve into what would be best for the most kids and for increased racial and economic integration.

ABOUT US With this issue, we welcome 125 new subscribers in Cleveland, who will receive Catalyst compliments of The George Gund Foundation, Ohio’s largest private foundation. We welcome the vote of confidence from the foundation as well. Says Executive Director David Bergholz: “This newsletter truly is a vital voice in the field of education reform, and much can be learned from its insightful and independent reporting.” This year, the Ohio Legislature took a page from Chicago’s school book, giving the Cleveland mayor authority to name a school board and chief executive officer. Unlike Chicago, however, there is a stiff challenge to this set-up. Members of school unions and the NAACP have filed suit.