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SMC Op-ed: Regional Magnet Schools – A More Complete Picture

Monday November 18, 2013

Regional magnet schools – a more complete picture
by Philip Tegeler, Liz Dupont-Diehl, and Barbara Zuras
November 18, 2013
©Journal-Inquirer

As supporters of quality, integrated educational options for all children in the Hartford region, we were disappointed to read the Nov. 9 commentary on regional magnet schools by Vernon Board of Education member David Kemp (“Pondering the attraction of magnets after reviewing test scores”).

Our coalition, the “Sheff Movement,” is a Hartford-area coalition of parents, educators, and community leaders who are committed to “quality, integrated education for all children.” We are proud of Connecticut’s landmark civil-rights case, Sheff v. O’Neill, and we support the expansion and improvement of Connecticut’s award-winning two-way voluntary integration system in the Hartford region.

We are committed to making sure that everyone has the facts, so we are writing to set the record straight in response to some of Kemp’s statements.

First, Kemp importantly does not mention that the magnet schools in the Hartford area were created in response to the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill state Supreme Court ruling, which found that Hartford-resident students were racially and economically isolated in separate schools, based on the way Connecticut had set up its system of school districts and student attendance. School segregation was also closely linked to school resource disparities, and disparities in student achievement. The court stressed that “every passing day denies these children their constitutional right to a substantially equal educational opportunity.”

The court-ordered regional plan, agreed to by the plaintiffs and the state, has involved the development of interdistrict magnet schools (operated by CREC, the Hartford public schools, and Goodwin College) and the expansion of the Open Choice Program, in which suburban school districts offer enrollment opportunities for Hartford-resident students. This innovative two-way voluntary integration program has given both Hartford and suburban children access to a whole new range of quality integrated educational choices, and has led to impressive achievement gains — as recently reported by the state Department of Education (see http://www.ctmirror.org/node/143623).

Kemp’s comparisons of Rockville High School SAT scores with magnet school scores ignores these data and draws comparisons that he must realize are unfair.

The demographics of Rockville High School and most of our regional magnet schools are significantly different, by design.

For example, the author chose to highlight the SAT scores at CREC’s Public Safety Academy in comparison to Rockville High School. But state data show that Rockville High has far fewer (less than half as many) low-income students as Public Safety Academy. To make a reasonable comparison between these schools it would be appropriate to compare similar groups of students (for example, scores of students in either school receiving free or reduced price lunch, or scores of students from Vernon attending the magnet school).

There are more than 40 magnet schools in the Hartford region. These schools are working hard to close the achievement gap, and impressive CMT/CAPT scores, high school graduation rates, and SAT participation rates reflect this. Magnet school high school graduation rates also exceed Rockville High School’s graduation rates, according to an analysis the Sheff Movement coalition did in 2012 using state Department of Education data.

A word about Kemp’s misleading claims about magnet school “tuition.” The fact is that many regional magnet schools do not charge any tuition to participating towns (not mentioned in Kemp’s essay), and those that do (mostly CREC schools, as required by state law) charge tuitions ranging from $3,200-$5,200 per student.

This is far less than the $12,000-plus per-pupil expenditures Vernon has reported that it spends on its own schools — and even though magnet school students don’t attend school in Vernon, the town is allowed to keep the full per-pupil “ECS grant” received from the state for each of those students. While we understand that Vernon does not automatically “save” $12,000-plus for each student who attends an out-of-district school, it is fair to point out that Vernon schools are reaping a substantial financial benefit when their students attend regional magnet schools.

In addition, Vernon public schools can receive additional funding from the state if they increase the number of seats offered to Hartford students in the Open Choice Program. Currently, suburban towns that offer 3 percent of their total seats to Hartford students receive $6,000 per student, with up to $8,000 per student for enrollment levels of 4 percent and above.

Families in the Hartford region are fortunate to have the opportunity to choose quality integrated magnet schools that bring together students from different school districts and diverse backgrounds. The specialized themes of these schools, as well as their quality and diversity, have made them popular among families throughout the region — over 18,000 families (mostly suburban families) applied for approximately 4,000 openings in magnet schools last September.

Finally, we are not suggesting that Rockville High School is not a great school. We assume Rockville High is an excellent school and that Vernon residents are proud to have the option of sending their children there.

But Vernon is not an island — it is part of a larger region and an important participating town in one of the most important school integration efforts happening anywhere in the country.

We urge Kemp to stop attacking our successful school integration programs. He should be encouraging Vernon residents to participate in the regional magnet system, not discouraging them. We are all in this region together.

Philip Tegeler is a West Hartford resident. Liz Dupont-Diehl is a Windsor resident. Barbara Zuras is an Avon resident. For more information, go to www.sheffmovement.org

Link: http://www.journalinquirer.com/opinion/other_columnists/regional-magnet-schools-a-more-complete-picture/article_e4394c7e-5041-11e3-92ba-001a4bcf887a.html