Indianapolis Public Schools administrators believes they’ve found a new way for the district to compete in the ever-freer marketplace for state-funded education in Indiana: play up the district’s magnet school offerings.
IPS currently operates 18 magnet schools, with each offering a different curriculum designed to reach specific sets of student interests and needs. IPS plans to open two more magnet schools next year.
With school vouchers and charters gaining the most attention from education policymakers in recent years, magnet schools seem to have gotten lost in the shuffle. But is it possible magnet schools could be a better way to improve student performance than either vouchers or charters?
Some studies have found magnet students outperform charter or voucher students:
- A 2006 report from the Public Policy Institute of California found the achievement gains of students at magnet schools in math were higher than those of students at choice schools (in the case of the study, mostly charters and open-enrollment in other public schools), shown in the chart on the right.
- Another study from Connecticut found that a $2 billion expansion of magnet schools in the state’s poorest cities helped students do better on math and reading tests.
Other studies haven’t been so conclusive.
A Chicago teacher wrote in the New York Times that, by attracting the highest-performing students into magnet schools, mainline public schools suffer:
When educational leaders decided to create magnet schools, they didn’t just get it wrong, they got it backwards. They pulled out the best and brightest from our communities and sent them away. The students who are part of the “great middle” now find themselves in an environment where the peers who have the greatest influence in their school are the least positive role models… What should have been done was to pull out the bottom ten percent. Educational leaders could have greatly expanded the alternative school model and sent struggling students to a place that had been designed to meet their educational needs. Now, hundreds of millions of dollars later, we are no closer to meeting the needs of the struggling student.
Whether or not magnet schools work better for students than other options, IPS’s efforts to highlight its magnet school options are now all the more crucial to keeping its students from looking elsewhere.
While IPS superintendent Eugene White says the district’s enrollment decline was one of the lowest in years, this is largely because of outreach efforts to bring back students who had dropped out or left for charter schools. IPS lost more than 600 students to the state’s voucher program this year.