By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
The “eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room” figure of speech is a familiar one. People use it to refer to an important problem that is left unaddressed when people offer solutions to issues of the day. I think it is a fitting metaphor for the millions of American minority students who will be left behind if the educational reforms favored by many conservatives — vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, magnet schools — were ever to be put in place. No question, the students who escape crime-ridden, non-functioning public schools through any of the above proposals will benefit greatly from attending their new school. But what of the families who want their children to escape the neighborhood classrooms where little teaching goes on and the school buildings controlled by drug-dealing gangs, but cannot? A healthy society needs to address their plight.
A January 17 article by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas in the central Connecticut newspaper the Record-Journal offered an analysis of this problem, specifically in regard to Connecticut’s magnet schools. These schools were created at the cost of $2.5 billion, writes Rabe Thomas, “to comply with an order from the Connecticut Supreme Court to reduce educational inequalities in Hartford by providing an integrated education for children who live in Hartford.” The court was responding to data that “show that Hartford students who attend a magnet or suburban school significantly outperform on state standardized tests those who attend their neighborhood schools run by the Hartford Public School system.” The plan depended upon a high-quality curriculum and expensive facilities convincing large number of mainly white and Asian students from stable homes to enroll in the magnet schools, thereby providing an integrated setting for minority students who would choose the magnet schools over their failing inner-city school.
Minority families, writes Rabe Thomas, secure a position by signing up “their children in an annual lottery that gives their children a chance for a seat in a magnet school.” Those chosen in the lottery praise the magnet schools.
Rabe Thomas offers as an example Shunta Browdy, who said she cries “as she watches a group of little boys from her neighborhood walk to school,” the school that her two children used to attend before enrolling in a magnet school. “I know for a fact that the school they are going to is not a quality school,” she said.
That thought was echoed by Linda Teal, who expressed her happiness that her children were able to escape her neighborhood Hartford public school. “I had to get them out of there,” she said.
Teal called Hartford’s magnet schools “something my kids can fall back on. They have a future with these schools.”
Another parent told Rabe Thomas, the magnet school her children attend offers “swimming. They have a class in Greek mythology. This school is the best thing ever.”
The problem is that not everyone wins the lottery Connecticut offers. Seventy-three percent of the 5,000 students who attend segregated schools in Hartford who applied for the lottery were granted a spot, according to Rabe Thomas. Another 1,354 were placed on a waiting list. These are impressive results. But it leaves behind thousands of students who want to escape their failing schools but cannot do so.
“This concept of a lottery for an education has to end,” said Hartford parent Millie Archinegas. “We have to strive for all children to have a quality education. No child deserves to be subjected to staying in a school that you know is bound to fail.”
The problem goes further. The minority families who sign up for the magnet school lottery tend to be the more stable families in the neighborhood school they are seeking to escape. Their children tend to be the better students, the better behaved members of the student body. When you remove them from the failing neighborhood school, that school tends to become even more dysfunctional.
“We’re worse off now than before” the lottery began, said Hyacinth Yennie. “We cannot continue this way.” The magnet schools “are killing our city. Our children are more segregated now than ever. They are cast aside like they’re not really important. Only magnet schools are important because, you know what? We are funding them more money. It’s not fair to our children.”
This woman is on to something. The authorities may not intend to “cast aside” the children left in the neighborhood schools. But the unspoken premise, the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room, is that everyone knows that a safe, qualify education can be provided in the magnet schools precisely because the most disruptive and dysfunctional children are left behind in the local public school. The atmosphere these children create in a school building is what the families seeking admission to a magnet school are looking to escape. If a way were found for a significant number of these students to be assigned to a magnet school, the magnet school would fail. It would become unrecognizable from the neighborhood school for which it was designed as an alternative.
Another eight-hundred pound gorilla is the fact that the stable families from stable neighborhoods (again: often white families, but not necessarily so — many Asian families are this group) who are willing to send their children to magnet schools will not do so if the troubled children from the neighborhood school became part of the magnet school student body.
Margaret Thatcher is famous for her remark about socialism failing “when the government runs out of other people’s money to redistribute.” Magnet schools will fail when there are not enough stable families willing to send their children into a magnet school to provide a sufficient number of hard-working, disciplined, and self-directed students to significantly outweigh the influence of the children from the failing public schools who enter the magnet schools.
Quite a pickle! But in the meantime, what would those who propose vouchers, tax credits, charter schools, and magnet schools, say to someone like Hyacinth Yennie, who is convinced that all these plans will “cast aside” her children in the failing and dangerous local public schools?
Connecticut’s lottery for its magnet schools provides an escape from failing schools for thousands of families — those who win the lottery. But does not that imply we are willing to “cast aside” the losers of the lottery? I know, I know: We can’t let the perfect stand in the way of the good. But something is missing from this scenario.
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