If we want to create regional magnet schools — and programs that taxpaying parents want — the money to pay for them should follow the student to school.
This isn't the case for students from outside Hartford who attend one of the city's 10 magnet schools.
It's a simple marketplace notion — successful schools should be rewarded and schools that parents aren't interested in should not be. More than anything, we should not be creating and subsidizing more schools when enrollments are declining dramatically.
At a time of budget deficits and when we are still figuring out how to create racially diverse schools where suburban and urban students voluntarily attend, all of this is beyond frustrating.
For example, a student from Simsbury or West Hartford who decides to attend Hartford's highly regarded Greater Hartford Classical Magnet School brings along not a single dollar from the hometown board of education school budget. Classical, with a middle and high school program, and the nine other Hartford schools have attracted dozens of students from towns such as Bloomfield, East Windsor, Farmington, Glastonbury, Plainville, Simsbury, South Windsor, West Hartford and Vernon.
These suburban schools not only keep the tax dollars from the parents of children attending but also an estimated $8.9 million in state education assistance.
Classical has a waiting list of nearly 2,000 students. There are hundreds of students from families who want more of a choice in public education. Half city and half suburban, the 600-student school emphasizes academics, the arts and sports, including frequent extracurricular events like museum field trips.
"I had 2,000 applicants for 140 spots this year," Tim Sullivan, Classical's principal, told me when I stopped by. "We are providing a program that even suburban parents are starving for."
The demanding Classical program emphasizes a liberal arts education and has a longer school day. Students who need extra help get it — and a ride home on the late bus.
"We have kids in seventh grade reading 'The Iliad.' Some of these kids are flying. Some of these kids need help," Sullivan said. "How do you close the achievement gap? If you don't give those kids those experiences, they aren't going to close the gap. We are trying to get our kids so they can go to places like Williams and Trinity."
Interestingly, the state allows some interdistrict magnet programs — schools approved by the Department of Education and run by the regional education service centers — to charge tuition to suburban students.
It's not that the state doesn't support the Hartford magnet schools. Last week state legislators agreed to provide about $12,000 for each student from outside Hartford attending a city magnet. A better solution would be to require that education dollars from the home district follow the child to the magnet school that the student attends.
This would be real school choice that might even spark lasting reform, instead of just creating more schools.
"Long-term it is what we ought to do," said state Rep. Andrew Fleischman, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, when I caught up with him over at the Capitol the other day.
Fleischmann, a pragmatist who supports school choice, said this is a tight budget year and elected leaders don't want take money away from a local school district.
"To change something that is so fundamental and dramatic you need to live in a calmer fiscal time," he said. "It is not doable in this environment."
The problem is no time ever seems to be the right time. We've been talking about school choice for years and seen only incremental progress.
We need more schools like Classical Magnet, a demanding, diverse school that families want to support. The money — some money, at least — should follow students to the public school they actually attend.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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