Fresh look at magnet schools Baltimore County: School board right to slow expansion without curtailing program.

January 18, 1996

MAGNET SCHOOLS have been a popular draw in Baltimore County during the past three years, with more than 10,000 pupils enrolled in 25 of these specialized education programs. Now the county school board has voted to slow the rapid pace of expansion, in order to develop a strategic plan for new magnet programs and establish a systematic evaluation process.

Although it did not adopt all the recommendations of an outside consultant and a school system steering group, the county Board of Education agreed that the magnet program needs a bit of breathing room for review and planning. Consistent student selection procedures are needed, as is a continuity of programs from elementary school through high school.

This is a sensible pause for the school system, especially given the financial pressures on the education budget and complaints about the expense of the programs. At the same time, the board is looking ahead (to September 1997) for establishment of magnets at two more high schools. And to an overall evaluation of the magnet system in 1998, giving it sufficient time to prove itself.

It's a long way from the situation a year ago, when a divided board was close to declaring a moratorium on expanding the magnet concept in Baltimore County. There were complaints about resources drained from the local comprehensive schools, and about inconsistent administration, even while recognizing the benefits of expanded education choices and focused study themes.

Underlying all this discussion of academics, however, is the fact that magnet schools are designed to desegregate racially isolated neighborhood schools without busing or redistricting. Much of the money for starting magnet programs comes from the federal government specifically for correcting racial imbalance in target schools. So the racial factor in student selection, another sore spot with some parents, will remain.

The school board declined to take away pupil selection authority from individual principals, as the consultants advised, but did tTC insist that screening criteria for applicants to magnets be standardized, to meet criticisms of unfairness. That's another sound move to make the magnets more credible and more acceptable.

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