Holistic approach to fund magnet schools

A month ago New London voters' approved $168 million to refurbish the city's high school and the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and construct a new middle school adjacent to the high school campus. When the project is finished, with an estimated 80 percent state reimbursement, the city will have seven public schools that are new or renovated as new. If all goes as planned, it will be a system of magnet schools, giving city students school choice and attracting students from other towns drawn by the focused education.

While all students will receive a core education, that education will be provided through the lens of various pathways, as it is as existing magnet schools. From elementary through high school graduation in New London, students will be able to opt for four pathways, according to current planning: STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); visual and performing arts; dual language; and leadership and public service.

This newspaper has embraced this educational approach as offering the best chance to see dramatic improvement in city schools over a relatively short period of time. Carried out successfully, it would bring racial and economic diversity and capitalize on an educational model shown to improve student interest and performance, while attracting increased state revenue.

However, this undertaking and the state's overall support for magnet and charter schools as a way of diversifying educational opportunities and improving outcomes cannot be viewed in a vacuum. These efforts are also influencing traditional public education and sometimes negatively. Failure to recognize and address that challenge could undermine magnet school initiatives as one community is pitted against another in a fight for precious dollars.

Groton Schools Superintendent Michael H. Graner recently addressed this touchy subject. He told his Board of Education that the number of Groton students attending magnet schools outside the district has risen from 322 last year to about 430 this year, costing the Groton system an estimated $2.4 million.

The system is structured so that Groton and other municipalities must pay a portion of the cost of sending their students to magnet schools that are outside or independent of the district - effectively tuition. LEARN, a regional educational group, runs four interdistrict magnet schools in southeastern Connecticut, including two that opened in the last three years. For example, the Marine Science Magnet High School charges a tuition of about $5,600, and Groton pays about $3,000 for each student who attends an elementary magnet school, Dr. Graner said. When the student who wins the lottery to attend a magnet school is a special needs student, the price for the sending district goes up appreciably.

While that tuition cost is far less than the $14,000 per pupil average that Groton spends to educate its students, the reality is that the town does not save $14,000 for each student it sends to magnet schools, said Dr. Graner. Classroom size may shrink by two or three students, but a teacher is still needed. A Groton public school may have several dozen less students due to magnet school transfers, but building overhead costs remain largely the same.

Dr. Graner brings an interesting perspective. He is a fan of offering school choice through magnet schools. The Groton superintendent said magnet schools offer healthy competition, challenging Groton to make the case for the quality of its public schools. Dr. Graner serves on the advisory boards of the Marine Science Magnet School in Groton and the Science and Technology Magnet School of Southeastern Connecticut in New London.

But Dr. Graner makes a valid point when he says the state needs to revisit the formulas it uses to fund public education to reflect the new reality of growing magnet school development. A new approach would likely require more direct funding from the state and at the very least capping the burden placed on the traditional public schools. Without an equitable approach, the legislature could face a rebellion from school boards who watch their own resources dwindle to support more magnet schools.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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