Pull of the magnets

March 20, 1995

The Baltimore County school board did the right thing last Tuesday when it dismissed a proposed moratorium on expansion of the county's magnet school program.

A magnet moratorium is the last thing the school board should be dreaming up. Since its inception 18 months ago, the magnet program has managed the considerable feat of making students and their families more enthusiastic about the public school system. Parents who might have placed their children in private schools, or moved to a neighboring jurisdiction for its public education system, have been lining up to get their children into one of the county's 16 magnet programs. Also, teachers have been lobbying to get assigned to magnet staffs so they, too, can participate in these focused courses of study in environmental science, foreign languages, visual arts, sports science, computer technology, business and more.

Of course, this being Baltimore County, and Superintendent Stuart Berger being the main advocate of the magnet concept, the program has its bitter detractors. Their main criticism is that all the money and attention lavished on the magnets can only hurt the non-magnet neighborhood schools, draining them of the resources, good students and involved parents on which they thrive. Dr. Berger and other magnet supporters counter that the non-magnet schools will be forced by the program's success to improve so they become more appealing to local families.

The criticism has some validity. School officials should not ignore it even as they add to the roster of magnet offerings. This concern is what led to the suggested moratorium in the first place, and it has raised some worthwhile questions. For example, how many magnet schools does the county need? How many can it afford?

The ultimate question, though, is this: Where might the county school system be, now and in the near future, without the magnet program? As distasteful as the magnets are to some people, the alternatives to the program's desegregating effects would be worse. The inclusion brouhaha would be a whisper compared to the uproar unleashed by a proposal for countywide redistricting or busing.

More important, there would be far fewer people excited about the county school system -- in a happy way, for a change -- without the magnet program. The early evidence indicates that the magnets make the system better. As long as that trend continues, so should the magnet program.

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