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School Choice: The Uncertain Future Of New Magnet School

When state senator will suspend the construction of a new magnet school in the capital region five years ago, they want to know that these schools are worth the investment before admission to further improve.

So the legislature ordered the state education commissioner to assess magnet school performance and submit a plan for their future. That plan is now four years late, magnet schools approved before the moratorium will likely be full by the start of the next school year, research is incomplete on their impact and many legislators are reluctant to open new schools.

“The state is not well served by building expensive new schools,” state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, House chairman of the General Assembly’s Education Committee, said during an interview.

Magnet enrollment

There were 22,000 students attending 61 magnet schools when legislators voted to place a moratorium on building more in September 2009. Today, there are almost 40,000 students attending 84 magnets.


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Most of that growth has come in the capital region, where resistance from legislators to opening new magnet schools has had minimal impact.

That’s because the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the state in 1996 to integrate Hartford schools, and the state’s main tool for drawing suburban white students into schools with city students has been to open magnets with specialized learning themes. How to comply with the integration order is negotiated by State Department of Education officials and lawyers representing the parents that successfully sued the state in the landmark Sheff vs. O'Neill case.

“The legislature does not have a seat at that table,” said Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. He believes the better approach to desegregating city schools is to offer suburban districts more money to enroll city students.

The moratorium can have an impact, however, outside of the Hartford region. With the 44 magnets in Bridgeport, Hamden, Meriden, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Norwich, Stamford, Waterbury and Windham slated to be nearly full by the start of next school year, legislators will soon have to decide whether to allow more.

This debate comes as Connecticut's public school enrollment has dropped by 23,000 students between 2004 and 2011, and is estimated to decrease by another 7,000 students over the next 10 years — an overall decline of 5 percent, the U.S. Department of Education reports. 

Are students better off in magnets?

The state has spent more than $2 billion building magnet schools and is expected to spend $300 million this year to run them.

"That's an enormous amount of money, and there have been very little indicators it's working to improve student achievement," said Casey Cobb, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education. "They haven't invested one iota on research, which is stunning since the've invested so much on programming."

Jack Dougherty, an associate professor of educational studies at Trinity College, agrees.

"It's crazy to spend millions without evaluating the effectiveness," he said during an interview.

UConn researcher Casey Cobb
UConn researcher Casey Cobb, "They haven't invested one iota on research, which is stunning."

The only research on growth in the performance of the state's magnet school students was completed by Cobb back in 2009.

However, it can be difficult to draw conclusions from that report. Because of limitations in the data the education department collects, Cobb only compared test scores over two years for city students who attended two regional magnet schools and for city students who entered the School Choice lottery for the same two schools but didn't get in.

Cobb said that his "best estimates of the effects of inter-district magnet schools on student achievement indicate that attendance at an inter-district magnet high school has positive effects on mathematics and reading."

He drew a similar conclusion for reading achievement for middle school students. Cobb said he has been waiting for nearly a year for data from the state to do a follow-up study.

"It's very difficult to gather data. We are not the first priority, as researchers," said Cobb during an interview.

In addition, Enid Rey, executive director of school choice for Hartford Public Schools, said, "Not all magnet schools are created equal," and there can be educational disparities among various magnet schools.

The need for quality research is an issue education department officials are well aware of. They announced last month that they were working to complete research that will evaluate performance in Connecticut school-choice programs for the first time. It's unclear when that report will be made public.

State data does show that Hartford students who attend an integrated magnet school do significantly better on state standardized tests than those who attend neighborhood schools run by the Hartford school system. However, that data does not measure students' performance growth from one year to the next. It also does not assess whether magnet school students were academically ahead to begin

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