Educational investment that works and is affordable

For the past four years, the Marine Science Magnet High School (MSMHS) of Southeastern Connecticut received an average of 400 applications for its incoming freshman class. Like every magnet school in Connecticut, it used a lottery process to randomly select the 73 students who get in.

With demand so high that less than 20 percent of applicants gain entrance, one would think that the Connecticut state legislature would increase magnet school funding so that more families in Groton and elsewhere in the state could access the educational choices they want. Instead, the legislature has frozen magnet school funding.

Consider Angela (for privacy I used only her first name). She wants to be a doctor, not a marine biologist, but she still attended MSMHS because it provides a school environment that helped her learn about people and the world around her. The daughter of immigrants, she won’t just be the first in her family to attend medical school, this month she became the first in her family to attend college — and her high school inspired her to chase after her dreams.

MSMHS is not the only magnet school that serves its students well. In 2012, the State Department of Education in Connecticut reported that students in Hartford who attended magnet schools did better than those in more traditional neighborhood schools. And the diversity in the magnet schools was terrific: equal numbers of whites, blacks, and Latinos, as opposed to neighborhood schools that were almost two-thirds white.

It’s no wonder that the waiting list for magnet schools in Hartford has more than 15,000 students, almost four times the number of seats available.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced funding for four new magnet schools in in New Haven.  Three will teach science, technology, engineering and math through real-world examples, and the fourth will focus on the social sciences. Only nine school districts received funding this year; New Haven was included because of Connecticut’s success with the magnet model.

And yet, the state has placed a moratorium on new magnet school funding.

State lawmakers are concerned that the students not attending magnet schools were being left behind, but their solution — to stop, instead of expand, the innovative programming that delivered results — was both a real head-scratcher and the target of lawsuits. It ran contrary to the trends that federal experts saw in analyzing national data.

At the end of the summer, state Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ruled that the state government and legislature had to reconfigure how educational funding is distributed. Parents and educational experts alike all call for more magnets to be a main part of the new plan.

Magnet schools were originally conceived of as a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. By focusing on an educational theme, magnets attract a wide range of students from different backgrounds and neighborhoods. Today nearly 4,000 magnet schools nationwide serve over 2 million students.

The primary impetus for magnet schools in Connecticut came from the Sheff v. O’Neill state Supreme Court decision, in which the court ruled that students did not receive equal educational opportunities. In response, the state started funding magnets because they were a proven solution. The argument now is that the state should use this magnet school funding to improve its failing schools and forget about integration. But the two problems cannot be separated so easily; they are intertwined.

We cannot rely on the federal budget process to meet the demand for quality education. Instead of cutting funding for magnet schools here in Connecticut, we should fund the current schools at an appropriate level, keeping the state’s promise to families. We should then follow with a thoughtful plan to expand the opportunities for students.

This is exactly what innovative school districts are doing across the country. The Miami-Dade County Public School System, for example, is moving to an all-choice model, where all students have options beyond neighborhood geography.

If we are concerned about educating our children, we need to look at someplace other than our education system for budget savings. Our schools are not a piggy bank to shatter when times get tough, but are instead an investment in our future at all times. And magnets are a blue-ribbon investment yielding the highest dividends. It’s time to be smarter with our education priorities.

Art Arpin is the regional director of Magnet Schools of America. He is the former principal of the Connecticut IB Academy (CIBA) in East Hartford. He also served as an assistant principal at Hamden High School and Seymour  High School, and taught Spanish in the Connecticut towns of Colchester and Milford.



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