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NL school choice won't help students

By TIM EGAN

Publication: The Day

Published March 29. 2013 4:00AM

I would like to commend The Day on its interest in the state of the public schools in New London; however the very strong editorial endorsement March 24 of the plan to "magnetize" the elementary schools was a misguided, poorly considered position. ("Exciting new vision for New London schools.")

Like so much of recent educational reform the magnet solution is at best a cosmetic change. It creates the illusion of success while it does little or nothing to address the root causes of student failure. Children from dysfunctional families, from poverty, children who come to school hungry, with language issues, and children without the requisite family structure and support to succeed in school will still come to the magnet school with these issues.

The magnet school model will bring in an additional third of students from surrounding suburban communities, and these children will test well and the result will be higher scores for these "magnets." But these scores will only further mask the problems that are fundamental to many of New London's school children.

As the Day's editorial articulates, there is the problem of dividing the student population between the schools. This magnet model will require a lottery system to apportion students equitably among the three schools. In all likelihood, one of these schools will be the most coveted choice. The luck of the draw should not be a part of any educational offering.

Furthermore, how pedagogically sound it is to concentrate the education of elementary age children in some discipline or another is dubious at best. It is a rare eight-year-old who has a concrete notion of what direction her life's work will take. This in fact flies in the face of other recent reforms that will concentrate studies in the "common core" (literacy and numeracy) and not around a theme. Public schools should be about producing well rounded, life- long learners and creative thinkers and not vocational training grounds.

In addition to these concerns for New London, the magnet movement undermines other regional public schools as well. At this year's budget workshops the Waterford Board of Education identified the rising costs of out-of-district tuitions and transportation as a major factor in increased district spending. Connecticut is a "choice state" and districts are responsible for paying for students to attend magnet schools, always at an increase in per pupil cost for the sending district. Recently the Groton school board has also struggled with the costs for transportation associated with sending students to magnet programs.

The increase in the number of these magnet options also makes planning for enrollments more difficult for sending districts. From year to year numbers of children sent to such programs vary. This uncertainty impacts a variety of crucial issues including staffing, program, and supply budgeting. This uncertainty could also negatively impact planning for the magnets themselves as numbers could vary considerably from year to year.

Ultimately there needs to be change in the New London schools but the conversion to a magnet program is no panacea and has implications and consequences that reach beyond the borders of New London. The entire magnet movement in many ways is morphing into the kind of "school choice" scenario that educators feared, pitting the interests and well-being of one district against another, resulting in unfair distributions of money, and selling parents a bill of goods on the advantages of educational competition.

School choice was never pedagogically sound and calling it a magnet program doesn't change this. The additional state aid available under current law of $3,000 per student would seem to make this option attractive to other districts. What happens when Waterford, Groton, East Lyme, Montville, all convert their elementary schools to magnets? Certainly this money will dry up and where will the additional third of students come from? Districts will be competing for students, particularly for the highest preforming students, as teacher salaries will soon be tied to student performance.

Competition produces winners and losers, and this conversion to a magnet program results in competition. We cannot afford for any of our children to be losers, which is why school choice is fundamentally flawed. This is a direction that has not been thoroughly considered. It needs to be, before it results in unconsidered consequences.

Tim Egan is a member of the Waterford Board of Education and a teacher.

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