Magnet Education Attracts Unwelcome Clash With No Child Left Behind

OPINION - Magnet education has been a huge success in the School District of Palm Beach County (FLA). So why does their Superintendent, Art Johnson, call the magnets "elitist" and do everything that he can to unwind them?

Money in the post-Bush era of education.

Magnets attract the best and brightest to schools which offer more specialized opportunities, better academics, and, unfortunately, a safer school environment in some cases.

The magnet program is squarely at odds with the No Child Left Behind Act. Schools' funding hinges on the grades that they earn on the state testing of their students to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, the second largest Bush disaster after the economy.

Johnson's claim at a magnet school graduation ceremony four years ago that they were "elitist" stems from what would appear to the casual observer to be this Doctor of Physical Education's view that the "smart," achievement-oriented kids are no better than the rest of us.

There is no doubt that magnets impact community schools in lower income and ethnically red-lined neighborhoods. Take those bright motivated kids out of A-Rated schools in the tony parts of the county and it does not really matter much. Take them out of areas with C and D schools and those already ratings-challenged institutions get worse.

Magnets under NCLB rob the district of operational funds, which make them unpopular with superintendent Johnson and his bureaucrats already wrestling with huge budget shortfalls.

Even though these schools have been hugely successful at their primary mission, educating kids with a high motivation to learn and providing specialized education that community schools cannot, they are the target of the Superintendent's slow and comprehensive plan to grind them back into being community schools.

Rather than working hard to lift up the best and brightest, who have the passion and desire to excel in the School District of Palm Beach County, Johnson seems to be really hoping that they'll help out the school district instead by staying where they belong.

Dr. J's viewpoint seems to be that keeping the school district flush with cash by flushing the magnet schools down the drain is more important than giving a student an opportunity to be with other motivated kids, avoid fights, bullying, and also have access to the "extras" that would not be available in the community school. The extras that change lives of the individuals who qualify for these programs for the better.

A math and science school with more advanced lab equipment can be put to good use by students with a passion to enter a field of scientific study. The private lessons and extra hours of attention for a student musician can open the door to four years of college covered by the college itself or a sponsor. None of those doors would have opened without that accelerated learning of a community school or some sort of accelerated magnet program within a community school.

It is not only the classic struggle between the rights of the individual over the collective good, but, in this, one of the most societally red-lined patches of real estate in South Florida, it has racial overtones as well.

Magnets in Palm Beach County were originally established as an alternative solution to integration that replaced forced busing. The idea was to voluntarily attract kids with specialized interests, like science or math or music or construction, to schools outside of their community school, usually, in the early days, in schools in largely ethnic or poor neighborhoods.

In Palm Beach they have been a resounding success. Over the last twenty years, magnet education, and related programs, have continued to expand in interest with academics, parents and students. The county has magnets for International Baccalaureate (IB), math and science, construction, ROTC, the arts, and more.

A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, the arts magnet school in Palm Beach County, is also one of the top-rated arts high schools int the country and the only nationally top 50s rated public school by Business Week in the county. The school sports an impressive 100% graduation rate as well.

Which makes the directives and mandates which the District hands down to magnet principals even more puzzling. Routinely they fight to reduce magnet class sizes even though demand for the county's School Choice program continues to increase. The demand, though, is ironically driven by another one of Johnson's destructive initiatives.

In the name of "fairness" Johnson ordered the creation of a lottery-entry system whose real mission seems to be to discourage the gifted from leaving their community school.

A choral singer applying for the BAK Middle School of the Arts, an audition-entry school, can score a 95 on a performance test, and not get in, while another student with an 80 can be admitted under the lottery. No one knows how the lottery functions, and even though state Sunshine Laws compel transparency in public institutions, the District routinely bats away parent and educational organization requests for information about the process.

The result is a dilution of the kids with the skills to learn a subject or group of subjects which the magnet features at an accelerated level. It has also turned the School Choice program into a free-for all.

If Dr. J. ran Stanford, in the name of fairness, kids with 3.1s would get in and kids who had worked hard and applied themselves with 4.5s would find themselves at Seminole Community College. It makes as little sense in the elementary and secondary level.

The biggest concern right now, though, is that the Republicans in the state legislature in Tallahassee keep finding new ways to beat up on teachers and their unions, and the school districts like Palm Beach that want to dismantle magnet education are using these laws and programs to divert attention from the wrecking ball hitting the magnet schools.

Governor Crist vetoed SB 6, a controversial state senate measure to tie teacher pay to the Florida state standardized test, the FCAT. The unfairness of tying other issues that affect student performance, from physical handicaps to violent behavior to poor parenting finally convinced Crist to do the right thing but other measures to remove tenured teachers have been far more effective.

Teachers who participate in the State's DROP retirement program found that it was altered from the agreement which they signed, which offered a five year program with the option of extending in three year increments to the maximum retirement age, changed retroactively to a new program which slammed the door on their future teaching in the state's public school systems beyond their five year DROP plan forever.

The politicos sold it as a way of weeding out the tired and the deadwood from our school systems, but it also impacts teachers in the specialty and magnet programs who are the sought-after passionate and highly motivated teachers as well.

Right now, the School District of Palm Beach County is already losing some of its best magnet teaching talent to DROP, and the trend is going to accelerate.

It would appear that Johnson uses these state programs' flaws to his advantage in the anti-magnet campaign. The District has provided no mechanism for rehiring of specialized teachers in the magnet programs. Currently the only exempt schools are high-need (C and D) and teachers of children with special needs on the more academically-challenged end of the scale.

The specialized needs of the kids with the biggest learning problems are given help because they impact FCAT test scores and school funding. Magnet school principals are left to pilfer good teachers from the community schools, which delights students and parents no end, as their only mechanism for filling vacancies which, most educational experts sitting behind desks and being ignored by Johnson in the District Office agree usually need to be staffed up by external hiring and often a national search.

You cannot always easily replace an educator who opted out of private science to teach accelerated chemistry by pulling in even a very talented community school educator. Assuming that you could, removing that educator from their community school impacts not only that school but others as the principals keep pilfering from one another to find qualified educators in a system with a more than $30 million dollar shortfall, a $70 million District bureaucracy, and a budget-crunch induced hiring freeze on most teaching positions.

The other reason for taking from the community schools is would seem to be Johnson's desire to reinforce them as a sort of educational bogey man. Blame the magnets for losing your good teachers. Maybe we shouldn't have these "elitist" programs anymore.

With two bureaucrats, who make competitive wages to their peers in the private sector, and four support staff for every teacher, you would think that the fat could come out of the school district office rather than the pockets of teachers who have already had a two year cost of living freeze in this, one of the most affluent counties in America.

Heck, the superintendent pulls down a whopping $300,000 a year, and the School Board members get about $280,000 or $40,000 each. That could buy a few teachers.

A lot of this push is from another financial source: Special interests. From the software maker who wants to sell the schools software to deal with class overcrowding by putting kids in front of computers rather than educators to the companies that sell goods and services to the bloated bureaucracy of the Palm Beach County School District, a lot of the politics surrounding schools is not about excellence but economics.

Magnet education works. So does the retention of those "best and brightest" teachers that Mr. Obama wants teaching our kids. The problem for teachers who are passionate about teaching is that they live in the Bushian Nightmare of educational testing companies, textbook publishers, educational software vendors, and other "monied" friends of the Republicans propping up the mediocrity campaigns of tin-horn pedagogic dictators like Johnson who want to quash the programs that will produce the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and performers of our cultural heritages.

It needs to stop, and the magnet schools need to be supported in their drive to help great kids with and without the means to get into college in the passion of their choice.

My shiny two.