Are magnet schools LAUSD’s last hope to keep Anglo kids in the system?

It’s not yet clear whether last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on school desegregation will affect the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), but the questions the decision raises certainly resonate across the Jewish community. In the year 2007, is desegregation still a worthy goal or is it time to move on?

As a parent of three children who have attended magnet schools in Los Angeles, this is not a theoretical concern. It’s about the future of my kids.

Unlike the remarkable racial and ethnic diversity that defines Los Angeles as a city, our public school system has become increasingly homogeneous, defined by the large and growing Latino population. Just 9 percent of the total K-12 enrollment is white.

Enter the magnet school program. Many white parents value magnet schools as the only viable public school option where their child can receive a quality education and not be the only white kid in the room.

LAUSD created magnet schools in the 1970s as a strategy to promote desegregation on a voluntary basis. After the heated and divisive battles over “forced” busing (where Jews figured prominently on both sides of the issue), magnets were designed to use voluntary choice, rather than coercion, to promote integrated school environments.

This premise still holds today. These specialized school programs are often so outstanding that they inspire parents of all racial backgrounds to send their kids outside of their home neighborhoods.

Because magnet schools were created and funded as a strategy to promote desegregation, rules were established to maintain a ratio reflecting the district’s larger population of white students on the one hand and kids who are among the “predominantly Hispanic, black, Asian and other non-white” populations on the other.

A lottery, based on a complicated point system, determines which applicants are accepted to each magnet school. Based on the long waiting lists and intense angst of parents who struggle to master the point system, magnet schools have proven very popular and successful.

In many parts of L.A., parents will lament that “our local school is OK, but I don’t know if I’m comfortable with Johnny being the only white kid in his class.” One can see how they would feel drawn to a nearby (or not so nearby) integrated magnet school, where their child is much more likely to find they are one of many white students.

In addition to providing a more integrated enrollment, the magnet schools have achieved strong academic results. Magnets are often called the “crown jewels” of LAUSD. Yet it is the very success and appeal of such magnet programs nationally that have raised the recent constitutional question about the rights of those kids who are turned away, largely because of their race.

Every year, many white students apply to specific magnet schools but are not selected, in part because the total white enrollment would fall outside the targeted ratios of the LAUSD desegregation program. This could be summarized as the “one white kid too many” scenario.

From the perspective of that child and his or her parents, they are being discriminated against because of the color of their skin. This was part of the context of the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases.

The annual lottery to admit kids to L.A. magnet schools produces winners and losers, and race is definitely a factor. I believe the larger public benefits warrant this “downside,” but that is easy for me to say, as someone who has successfully placed my kids in magnet schools. But beyond the personal, there are important benefits for all from this program.

Magnet schools may be the only hope for retaining the remaining white enrollment in LAUSD. If they were to be eliminated, how many white families would make a renewed commitment to their local neighborhood school, where few other white students now attend?

To be sure, there have been some success stories where a small band of motivated parents have led efforts to “bring back the community” to their local school. But how many who do not have the benefit of such localized efforts would consider the end of magnets to be the “last straw” and follow their neighbors off to private schools? How many might move away from L.A. altogether?

By now it is fairly apparent to most observers that the future of Los Angeles will be defined by the needs and priorities of the Latino community. As Jews, we should be concerned that our large public school district serves primarily Latino kids, most of whom will never meet a Jewish child in their school careers.

Our own kids and the city as a whole are better served by an inclusive school system that is representative of the whole population. A city whose children are educated in segregated ethnic and religious enclaves will not be prepared to navigate the challenges and opportunities generated by the city’s overall diversity.

While these issues are compelling in many parts of the Jewish community, they may simply be moot in the larger sense. Most Jews and other whites have already left public schools and no longer see this as their particular problem, as evidenced by the stunningly low voter turnout for the heated recent school board election in the Valley. Still, there is some irony — and maybe even some hope — in the fact that the winning candidate, Tamar Galatzan, is Jewish.

At the same time, civic leaders in the Latino, African American and Asian communities have also moved on from the question of desegregation. Drawing in more white students is far less important to them than securing the resources and effective instructional programs to serve kids of color.

Due to many legal complexities, it remains unclear whether the LAUSD magnet schools will be affected by the recent court ruling. But even if the status quo remains, it would be a mistake to let the issue pass without a conversation about the relationship and engagement of the Jewish community with our public schools. Looking to the future, should we press to create viable public schools as an option for our own children or is it simply too late?

Mark Slavkin, vice president for education at the Music Center, served as a Los Angeles Board of Education member from 1989 to 1997.