Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools may turn to a long-ago innovation – magnet schools – to become newly competitive in the evolving education marketplace.
That’s right – we said “marketplace.” Public schools are no longer just about giving students the strongest education possible. More than ever, districts like CMS are in the business of competing for those students, who have a growing number of charter and private school choices.
Last week, CMS Superintendent Ann Clark dropped some big hints about how the district might better position itself, the Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reported. At a Thursday school board meeting, Clark said she wanted to offer more magnet school seats, possibly by expanding popular magnets and creating new programs.
Clark will make a formal proposal next month, so no specific plans or costs were put on the table Thursday. But expanding magnets is a promising notion for CMS, one that not only could offer families stronger education options, but also help the district address resegregating and struggling schools.
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How much magnets can help confront those problems depends in part on how far the district wants to go. One possibility floated last week is a significant expansion of magnets, so that families in four quadrants of the city have the same number or types of choices, such as STEM or language immersion magnets.
Doing so might also help rebuild the relationship CMS has with some communities. An example: As CMS leaders increase the number of magnets, principals and families could be given input into which type of magnet best fits their community. That kind of customer-friendly approach would require a fundamental shift in CMS’s top-down mindset, but it would help the district directly compete with the growth of specialty charter schools.
A dramatic increase in magnet choices also might head off a concern we have with magnet expansion: transportation costs. Magnets often draw students from beyond neighborhood school zones, so increasing the number of seats naturally might result in more children needing to be driven longer distances.
A robust magnet network in each part of the city, however, would keep students closer to home and cost the district less. It also would help the district cut down on much-maligned magnet “shuttle stops,” a recession-era cost-saving measure of having central locations for bus dropoff and pickup.
Depending on how quadrants are drawn, magnets might also help CMS break up some concentrations of poverty that have resulted in segregated, low-performing schools. Magnets have long been considered a tool for integration, but CMS has had an off-and-on affection for the concept, in part because magnets were seen as taking strong students away from challenged schools.
Now, those students might be leaving anyway for charter schools. CMS needs to compete for those students, and in turn, for public dollars coming from Raleigh. It’s an education marketplace now. CMS is right to realize it.