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Cities moving away from magnet schools concept

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

While New Orleans is busy deciding how it will handle the requirements for entrance into its elite magnet schools, other U.S. cities are trying to remove magnet from their vocabularies.

“There has been very much a de-emphasizing of the magnet school concept in this town,” said Chuck Dean, education reporter for The Birmingham (Ala.) News.

Dean said Birmingham began to “demagnetize” schools after black community accusations that magnet schools were places where white students could segregate themselves from black students. “[Black leaders] saw them as elitist places,” Dean said.

In Atlanta, “there have been accusations of this by parents, teachers and principals,” said Rochelle Carter, Atlanta Journal and Constitution public schools reporter. “Some schools appear to be nicer and better.”

Elsewhere school districts have adopted new euphemisms, designations such as “high academic program” or “specialized school” in order to avoid the word magnet’s negative connotations.

In St. Louis, controversy has surrounded the system for years. Major issue: student achievement. “The biggest difference is the [non-magnet] students’ poor performance on state-given exams,” said Marsha Hicks of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

More public school districts may someday find themselves in competition with Catholic and other private schools. The U.S. Supreme Court recently allowed Milwaukee to continue its controversial voucher program. That program gives state money to students who want to attend private high schools but can’t afford them.

Program critics say it takes money and talented students out of the public school system.

“The Supreme Court may someday feel the need to clarify the status of school choice plans,” said Jay Lefkowitz, the Washington attorney who argued the Milwaukee case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. “But, provided that the other lower courts follow the lead of the Wisconsin court in rejecting the anti-choice arguments, that day is not likely to come anytime soon.”

Jarrod Jones, Tammicka Logan, Chari Patterson, Andria Washington and James Williams contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 1999