T PHILADELPHIA School District recently created a stir by seeming to want to change the admission guidelines for their high-performing magnet schools in an effort to increase diversity. (Soon after the idea was announced, school chief Arlene Ackerman declared the proposal dead and explained the idea came from a miscommunication by her staff.)
But the backlash from the initial proposal was strong. Parents of magnet-school students feared the change would water down school standards and drive middle-class families out of the city. In short, they were frustrated that the district would try to fix something that wasn't broken.
The formula that makes magnet schools work is not hard to figure out. Most have the privilege of hand-selecting their pupils, and can quickly remove problem students if they don't respond to interventions. Parental involvement is also much higher at these schools, which have special admission requirements that force parents to get involved and serve as an advocate for their child.
If the magnet-school formula were implemented in every public school in the city and state, districts would undoubtedly be transformed right before our very eyes. Test scores would go up and violence would go down.
Graduation rates would increase, and, because safety and major behavior problems would no longer be an issue, most schools would have experienced, quality educators.
But there is something called a compulsory education law in this state, and it requires that all children, 6 to 16, receive an education. It doesn't matter whether they want one or not, or whether their parents want them to have one. They have to be in school.
Ultimately, this forces districts to find a replacement venue if they remove a child from a school, and most districts don't have the resources to build enough alternative programs to accommodate these high-needs children.
This creates an overwhelming problem for the system, one that is as complex as poverty itself.
So what can be done? How can we reform the system without eliminating thousands of students and building alternative programs? The answer is simple: You build more charters.
This is at the heart of both Education Secretary Arne Duncan's national reform model, and the legislation introduced in January by Pennsylvania State Sen. Jeffrey E. Piccola. Charter schools are magnet schools in disguise. Although their standards aren't as stringent, they still manage to weed out the bottom 20 percent of students who hamper the educations of the remaining 80 percent.
There are both pros and cons to charters. One pro is that now the kids who really want an education can get one, free from the distractions of the bottom 20 percent. The violent and unruly will no longer be able to rob anyone of the ability to learn.
But there are also drawbacks. Charters suck resources from traditional schools, leaving them in some cases to rot. One answer to this problem is to make all schools charters, which seems to be a growing movement.
But here's the problem: The bottom 20 percent still need a place to go. Most likely they won't end up in the competitive charters with the highest admission requirements, but in those that are forced to take the traditional neighborhood students.
In the end, you'll have a dual-class system once again. Instead of having "magnet" and "traditional" like we do in Philadelphia now, we'll have something else - perhaps "good" charters and "bad" charters.
At this point, studies will be done by social scientists, and they'll show that a certain type of discrimination is taking place. Poor kids, or those without parents, or those of a particular race, or those from a particular area of the city or state, will find themselves in a "bad" charter.
Then politicians will dive back into the fray. A law will be passed that all charters must have balance, that they must include a portion of "all" students - this is part of what the Philadelphia district was proposing doing with its magnet schools.
WITHIN a few years, the charters will be "balanced," and we'll be back to square one. The students who come from good backgrounds or are self-motivated and have all the tools to learn will be once again robbed of an education, and the other 20 percent will still be taxing the system.
This is what happens when society refuses to realize that schools are an extension of the surrounding community, not vice versa. Until we embrace this reality and work for a holistic solution, nothing besides names and faces will change.