Magnet plan, attendance lines mean tough choices for school board

The Observer editorial board

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is considering eliminating “shuttle” bus stops like this one.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is considering eliminating “shuttle” bus stops like this one. Charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new magnet plan represents a much-needed re-framing of the district’s approach to school choice. In an era of multiplying educational options, CMS is wise to seek a more robust, market-sensitive menu of offerings.

The proposal to place new career-tech magnets at five high-poverty neighborhood high schools makes sense. So does the idea of adding seats at magnets that are already drawing strong interest from parents.

Still, the school board finds itself facing a sensitive needle-threading operation. It has correctly placed this re-imagining of magnet schools within the broader context of its once-every-six-years review of attendance zones for neighborhood schools. A board committee will discuss guiding principles for that review on Thursday.

OneMECK, the citizens’ group promoting diversity in schools and neighborhoods, has already pointed out a potential pitfall. Given how popular magnets can be and how thoroughly unpopular attendance line changes often are, it is not hard to imagine scenarios under which school board members end up doing a lot with new magnets, but less when it comes to using neighborhood school attendance lines to boost diversity.

That would be unfortunate. Magnets can only do so much to break up the clusters of intense poverty that strain a school’s resources. A thoughtful, measured updating of neighborhood attendance zones could provide the foundation for any diversity push.

Within the magnet plan itself, a big question is how to pay for the elimination of shuttle bus stops. Consultants from the Magnet Schools of America group have told CMS the shuttle stops, a recession-era cost-saving measure, must go away because they inhibit access for low-income parents – and therefore hinder diversity.

Can an expanded magnet effort boost diversity with the shuttle stops still in place? Given the price tag of up to $6 million for restoring neighborhood stops, that’s a question the school board should explore and explain to the public.

Another challenge the consultants identified: How do we make magnets more magnetic? Demand for some magnets seems to be driven by interest in the popular or affluent neighborhoods they’re located in, rather than the schools themselves.

School board members should not underestimate this challenge. Why have magnet schools at all if the main reason people choose them – “good” demographics – mirrors the reasons people pick a neighborhood school?

These issues are vital to Charlotte’s future. Voters keep asking mayoral candidates to weigh in, even though the mayor has no control over these matters.

School board members do. Let’s hope they exercise that power wisely.