Magnet school policy: Who would benefit?

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In early October, Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas unveiled a proposed new attendance policy for magnet schools that he had been talking about for more than a year. When it finally appeared in print, it touched off a citywide debate that quickly got personal.

In a letter to parents dated Oct. 10, which all schools were asked to send home with children, Vallas contends the proposal’s critics “apparently … do not want neighborhood children attending school with their children. … They prefer to maintain a policy of exclusion so that certain schools are isolated from their communities, reserved for a special group of children.”

In an interview with Catalyst, Vallas said those who contend the policy will have a negative impact on poor communities “are basically lying.”

Sheila Castillo, director of the Chicago Association of Local School Councils, calls Vallas’ characterizations “irresponsible. … Public discourse is being discouraged. This is public policy. People are gonna disagree.”

Another critic, civil rights attorney Karen Berman, is more emphatic. Vallas is acting “like a lunatic,” she says. Berman’s organization, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, questions the proposed policy on the grounds that it may curtail black and Latino children’s access to magnet schools.

Initially, the Reform Board was scheduled to vote on the policy Oct. 22. However, the board’s Desegregation Monitoring Commission wanted more time for public review, and the U.S. Justice Department wanted more for its own review; so a vote was delayed until November. Throughout October, school administrators revised the particulars.

Most of the debate centered around elementary magnets. Here’s where the policy and the issues stood as Catalyst went to press Oct. 24.

THE POLICY Beginning next fall, 15 percent of seats at each elementary magnet would be reserved for children living within a 1.5 mile radius of the school; the set-aside would rise to 30 percent in fall 1999. For high schools, the radius is 2.5 miles. The proposal calls for a study of the first year but doesn’t say what kind of findings would constitute a go-ahead for year two.

Under current policy, only the siblings of magnet school students have an advantage; 45 percent of a school’s seats are reserved for them. In addition, principals may handpick another 5 percent. A lottery is conducted for the seats that remain. The board’s proposal leaves all these features in place.

The policy also provides for a six-mile limit on busing, with exceptions for some programs for gifted students.

THE POLICY ISSUES Vallas says the policy was motivated by a desire to save money on busing and to address longstanding complaints of parents who live near magnet schools but can’t get their children into them.

Critics contend that because magnet schools are not evenly distributed throughout the city, the policy will create unequal access. “Simply by the accident of where you live, or where you can afford to live, your access would be affected,” says Castillo. Her children attend Inter-American Magnet School in Lake View, whose set-aside area includes no high-poverty areas, according to a School Board map.

School officials counter that they are creating so many new schools and programs that any geographic inequities would quickly disappear. Vallas says many of these programs can be funded from the busing savings.

Castillo notes that most of these new options are for high schools and won’t address access to elementary magnets. However, she welcomes new high school programs. Of the city’s nine established magnet high schools, only two have more than half of their students scoring at or above national norms; four are on probation.

THE POTENTIAL IMPACT Some critics of the policy contend it will benefit primarily higher-income and gentrifying areas along the north lakefront and around the Loop. Six elementary magnets are in or next to pricey north lakefront neighborhoods; one is in rapidly gentrifying Bucktown; three are on the Near West Side; and two are on the Near South Side.

Board officials say that the geographic argument cuts two ways. Many of the same schools also sit near housing projects and blighted areas. For example, LaSalle, Newberry and Franklin are within a mile of Cabrini-Green.

Skeptics note that the city is planning to replace much of the public housing on the Near North and Near West sides with market-rate units. “Cabrini-Green? Who are they kidding?” says Theresa Cropper, whose child attends LaSalle. “Cabrini is a marked man. You driven around Cabrini lately?”

Board officials also point out that many magnets are in all-minority areas. Beasley, for example, is across the street from Robert Taylor Homes. However, a Catalyst analysis of School Board data shows that most magnet elementary schools outside the lakefront and near-Loop areas already draw more than 30 percent of their students from the neighborhood. Beasley is a notable exception.

In addition, the vast majority of elementary magnets away from the lake and Loop don’t meet the goals set for them by the school district’s court-supervised desegregation plan: a white enrollment of 15 percent to 35 percent. Magnet schools are one mechanism the plan uses to create as many desegregated schools as possible in a system whose enrollment is only 11 percent white.

However, in the view of Corretta McFerrin, a veteran community organizer on the West Side, magnet schools were created “to stem white flight and to provide education for well-off blacks.” Indeed, more than half of the elementary magnets and almost all of the desegregated ones have poverty rates that are significantly below the school system’s average. (See chart on page 8.)

McFerrin contends that magnet schools are inequitable “by virtue of their existence.” As long as they exist, she says, neighborhood kids should get an improved shot at them. “Cabrini will be around a few years yet,” she adds. “Let those kids have a chance now.”

A preliminary study by the Desegregation Monitoring Commission showed that about 28 percent of students who are now bused to magnet schools could be affected by busing limits; most are black or Latino. Even so, the board maintains that busing limits won’t affect their ability to meet desegregation goals.