In Cincinnati, It's Like a Who Concert for Magnet Schools


For any of us who are perplexed and apalled by the unimaginable incompetency of many (if not all) large public school districts (we'll leave smaller districts for another time), take a gander at an annual ritual of idiocy in Cincinnati, Ohio, whose schools are even worse than its professional football team. That is, of course, despite spending tons of cash on a per-pupil basis—around $13,000 for the 2005-2006 school year, or about 50 percent more than the state average.

Like most big districts, years ago Cincinnati created a series of "magnet" schools, ostensibly as a means of offering specialized curricula equally to all students but in reality a way of keeping a dwindling handful of white parents from fleeing the district. Magnets, of course, require an application process, which already biases the programs to folks with more time, resources, and social capital. But unlike other districts that have somehow managed to come up with an application process that might be even semi-rational, the Cincinnati public school district (CPS) resorts to a bizarre first-come, first-serve setup that typically results in parents camping out overnight in front of their preferred venues, like teenagers in front of concert halls in the bad old pre-Ticketmaster days.

CPS officials are hoping to convince parents it simply isn't necessary to wait in line for days, despite the hype that builds up around the [magnet] schools with outsized demand.

It's impossible to measure this year's demand in advance, said district spokeswoman Janet Walsh, but last year, parents who stood in line for an entire weekend weren't substantially more likely to secure a spot than those who arrived just a few hours early….

CPS is not publicizing the number of available seats in advance as it did last year—something Walsh said may have created an artificially high demand.

"People saw (how few spots were open) and figured they better get there early," said Walsh. "When in fact, almost everybody who got there within a few hours of the actual start of the open-enrollment time got in."

Principals will not allow campsites to interfere with a school day either today or Tuesday, Walsh said. That could include simply banning camping altogether, Walsh said.

It's understandable why parents want to get their kids into magnet schools: Their kids get a much better education by virtually any measure. And if their kids don't get into a magnet school, they're likely to be sent to what the Cincinnati Enquirer suggests is a "struggling school that has repeatedly failed to meet federal and state achievement standards."

CPS, writes the Enquirer with hilarious understatement, "has struggled for years in finding an application method that doesn't give an unfair advantage to families with paid vacation time, traditional work hours and cars."

In fact, that gets it almost exactly wrong. If the district wanted to change the policy to help people without cars, traditional work hours, and personal transportation (i.e., the relatively poor and disadvantaged), they wouldn't require parents to show up early at schools during the work week. They would canvas neighborhoods, community centers, churches, you name it, on the weekends or the evenings.

More to the point, they would take a page from Rock 'n' Roll High School and blow the whole system up by, at the very least, turning every public school into a charter school that would need to compete for students (better yet, they would just give everyone a voucher they could use in any school, public or private). Such moves simply could not make the schools worse and they would certainly increase the opportunities that poor kids trapped in the current system have.

When I read stories such as this one about the CPS, I'm reminded of the basic Szaszian, public choice, and Marxist readings of "helping" institutions: Despite their rhetoric about uplift and opportunity, institutions such as public schools aren't there to shake up the social pyramid but to set it in frigging concrete. How better to punish the poor by creating a system that trains them in failure from the very beginning, all the while pretending to offer slim reeds of hope such as a handful of slots in "magnet schools"? Anything but actual choice because that could, you know, lead to actual choice.

As the father of modern school reform, Milton Friedman, told reason in 2005:

As to the benefits of universal vouchers, empowering parents would generate a competitive education market, which would lead to a burst of innovation and improvement, as competition has done in so many other areas. There's nothing that would do so much to avoid the danger of a two-tiered society, of a class-based society. And there's nothing that would do so much to ensure a skilled and educated work force.