Editorial: Magnet programs are exclusive, inequitable


Ash Catalan

Austin ISD should eliminate magnet programs in the district to provide more equitable learning experiences at all schools.

Editorial Board

To deal with an impending budget crisis the Austin school district last year formed a budget task force made up of sta and community members that examined the district’s budget in order to formulate suggestions for improvement.

When they released their list of suggestions as the year ended, recommendations included increasing the fee to rent Austin ISD buildings, increasing the number of paid childcare programs within the district, and doing away with the district’s magnet school programs.

Magnet programs are schools such as Fulmore, Kealing, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) and Ann Richards that students have to apply to get into. These schools are often advertised as having specialized programs or advanced academics. Students from all across the district attend magnet schools located across Austin and most of the schools offer bus transportation to each area of AISD before and after school.

District Proportions

A major reason the task force cited for closing down magnet programs was that not many students attend them: only about 3,000 of the district’s 82,000 students are enrolled in a magnet school. Because magnet programs utilize the same resources that other schools do for far fewer students, it is easy to make the case that this is a waste of those resources. There are economically disadvantaged schools that could benefit from the funds that are provided for the magnet programs.

Specialized Programs

An advertised benefit of magnet schools is their specialized pathways or curriculum. Fulmore Middle School is known as the humanities and law magnet, notable around the district for its student newspaper and mock trial classes. LASA is known for its “signature” courses that take the place of some elective slots. These classes are focused on the liberal arts and sciences. For many students in the district, courses specialized to an interest they may have is a big draw and many school board members argue that this draw and the state notoriety of magnets such as LASA are incentives for families to move into the district.

While these classes are excellent in theory, many of the programs could be found outside of magnet schools; Gorzycki also has a successful middle school newspaper, and Akins itself has many specialized programs comparable to LASA’s. When the rigor of these narrowed programs within magnet schools are compared to advanced academics at “regular” schools, there are not many real differences. This makes it seem as though the argument for keeping the magnet schools in place is concerned more with the optics of magnet schools, and not the educational experience they actually provide.

Diversity and Inequity

The world of advanced academics has, for many years, been largely occupied by the white and economically advantaged. Many magnet schools are no exception. In the 2017-18 school year, 58.7 percent of the district’s population was Hispanic and 59.9 percent were low-income. These numbers were not adequately represented in Austin ISD’s top magnet schools, LASA and Kealing. The magnet population at Kealing and LASA were 59.7 and 55.4 percent white, respectively, and the economically disadvantaged populations were both below 15 percent.

It is worth noting, of course, that some magnet programs are much more diverse; Ann Richards’ demographics very closely mirror the district’s, and Fulmore has made diversity outreach a priority in recruitment. Kealing and LASA, however, are both regarded as the academically advanced programs and the extreme cases of inequitable magnet populations. e more egregious of the two is LASA, which shares a campus with Lyndon Baines Johnson Early College High School (LBJ).

LASA occupies the second floor and portables and LBJ is on the first floor. Although they are in the same building, they are not integrated like other magnet and comprehensive programs such as Fulmore. When comparing the demographics of LBJ and LASA, the numbers are stark.

LBJ is a “majority minority” school that is only 1.8 percent white. e school is 58.4 percent Hispanic and 37.6 percent black with a 79.8 percent economically disadvantaged population. These numbers greatly exceed LASA’s proportions of those students, which is 1.7 percent black. is lack of diversity in these types of “academically advanced” communities creates a culture that makes magnet schools feel inaccessible to marginalized people and can funnel money away from economically disadvantaged schools.

Magnet Programs

On paper, magnet programs have many bene ts. Many of the appeals of the programs, however, are only surface level and not reflective of students’ actual experiences at those schools. Magnet schools’ curriculum and rigor are not as singular as it is often made out to be and, though they are making attempts to increase diversity, they are falling woefully short in their goals of closing major ethnic and economic gaps.

Above all, what it takes to x these problems is resources. Funds to improve programming and increase recruitment e orts are a big ask for programs that already require large transportation expenses for a small portion of the district’s population. While there are certainly benefits to the idea of magnet schools, the reform that would be required to do so is unlikely to happen.

Because of the task force’s suggestion, it would be more realistic to do away with magnet programs. Although there are some downfalls to collapsing these programs, the optics of their inequity and usage of resources makes them unsustainable considering the district’s dire financial situation and antithetical to the district’s advertised prioritization of equity.