Speaking of school choice, some parents in New Jersey can bypass their neighborhood school by enrolling their children in one of the state’s public magnet schools. How good are these schools, which are run under the umbrella of county vocational-technical schools? So good that U.S. News and World Report just placed six of them on the list of N.J.’s top ten public high schools. And so good that six of N.J.’s magnets (five of the six named in U.S. News) made Newsweek’s list of America’s top ten high schools.
N.J.’s magnets are shining examples of public school choice that suffer none of the scorn heaped on another form of public school choice, charter schools. Mysterious, isn’t it? After all, magnets siphon dollars from local districts, along with contributions from the county and state. Vo-tech districts are immune from N.J.’s suffocating superintendent salary caps and, unlike charters, spend more public dollars per pupil than traditional schools. You’d think their practice of creaming off students from motivated families, a common complaint about charters, would inspire similar resentment. But it doesn’t, even though acceptance rates at these elite schools are about 15%, based on standardized tests, G.P.A.’s, references, and interviews.
But there is no resentment. New Jerseyans not only accept but cherish their public magnets. So does NJEA (perhaps because public magnet staff are unionized, unlike most charter school staff). Save Our Schools-NJ, indefatigable opponent of school choice, is silent on magnet schools.
So with no political obstacles, magnets are on safe ground. And we can make them even better by taking a cue from charter schools and striving to reflect the demographics of catchment areas.
Right now we don’t even come close.
Here’s two examples. The top N.J. high school on U.S. News’s list and the second best American high school on Newsweek’s list is High Technology High School, part of the Monmouth County Vo-Tech School District. According to its website, the school offers “a pre-engineering career academy that emphasizes the interconnections among mathematics, science, technology, and the humanities.” The site also claims that “its students “represent a cross-section of students from 45+ school districts in Monmouth County, generating a culturally diverse, as well as gender and racially balanced environment. “
Just how diverse? According to the N.J. Department of Education’s School Performance Report, 0% of students there qualify for special education services, 2.6% are economically-disadvantaged, and 0% are English Language Learners. African-American students comprise 1.6% of the total enrollment; Hispanic students comprise 3.2%.
Now, Monmouth County is mostly white and wealthy. Indeed, N.J.’s top magnets are in mostly white and wealthy counties. But in the high school closest to High Tech HS, Middletown North, 17.5% of students are economically-disadvantaged.
Next, let’s look at Bergen County Academies, where students have access to a Nano-Structural Imaging Lab, an scanning electron microscope, a transmissions electron microscope, and a laser scanning electron microscope. At this magnet, part of Bergen County Vo-Tech District, 1% of students have disabilities, 4.2% are economically-disadvantaged, and 0.4% are English Language Learners. One percent of students are African-American and 6.4% are Hispanic.
Hackensack High School is the closest high school to Bergen Academies. There, 29 percent of students are black, 22.9 percent are white, and 43.6 percent are Hispanic. Forty-two percent are economically-disadvantaged. Now, most of Bergen County is whiter and wealthier than that. But not as white and wealthy as the enrollment at Bergen Academies.
So here’s a challenge and an opportunity: let’s borrow a principle from our charter schools and create policies and/or legislation that mandate meaningful enrollment diversity at our wonderful magnet schools. Surely that’s a goal that both school choice advocates and detractors can support.