Originally created 01/15/06

The enduring attraction of magnets



Vouchers are popular with many parents of school-age children for a very good reason - and it's not because of the opportunity they provide for a private-school education.

It's that private schools provide what one-size-fits-all public schools do not - namely, innovative and imaginative education strategies that actually engage kids' minds, even kids who don't learn easily.

The public education establishment, of course, opposes the voucher movement because it threatens their monopoly. Instead of trying to beat back vouchers politically, underperforming public schools ought to embrace the kind of educational innovations available to private schools.

They need to look on parents and pupils as customers - give them what they want. If public schools do this, they won't have to worry about competition from the private sector, because they'll have waiting lists of their own. Indeed, customers will be clamoring to get in.

Allowing communities to set up charter schools is one important way public school systems are trying to steal the thunder of private schools. That's good.

Another way is what Harlem Middle School in Columbia County is doing - replacing coeducation with same-gender classes.

This makes sense because it's an acknowledgment that though coeducation works for some, it doesn't work for all. Many pupils, especially girls, learn better when the opposite sex isn't around; private schools know this, and Harlem Middle School's experiment indicates public schools are starting to learn it, too.

Charter schools and same sex classes are two innovations available to public school systems. A third is the magnet school system, which has proven to be a resounding success in Richmond County. With waiting lists to get into the magnet schools, the election of magnet school proponent A.K. Hasan to the school board last November, and more magnet schools on the drawing board, trustees moved last week to create a magnet school expansion committee.

This was the right thing to do, but then board accord broke down over the details. After a flurry of motions, substitute motions and amendments, the issue got thoroughly confused and was tabled, at least temporarily.

Just as magnet and charter schools don't fit the usual public school mold, school boards and administrators have to break out of their bureaucratic mold. As long as they're bogged down in minutiae, progress will be bogged down, too.

Educators must keep their eyes on the prize - to create schools people want to go to. Magnet and charter schools are those kinds of schools. Build them, and customers will come. Just get on with it.