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Betsy DeVos' confirmation has stoked fears about undermining public schools, in large part because of the secretary of Education's full-throated support for school vouchers.
But if the last few days have been any indication, DeVos is trying to put a friendlier face on the idea of school choice. So far, she hasn't mentioned vouchers as a priority at all — and today she spoke to a trade association for magnet schools.
"Magnet schools are often referred to as the original school choice option," DeVos said. "What makes your schools transformative places of learning is not a federal grant ... it's you, the human connection.
Magnets are public schools that any student can attend regardless of where they live, though in some places students have to take a test or luck out in a lottery to get in to popular ones. Los Angeles uses a weighted system — with extra points for such things as if your sibling is in a magnet school or your local school is overcrowded.
Magnet schools were created in the 1970s to desegregate school districts by offering gifted or themed programs to pull white students onto campuses that were predominantly black.
In Los Angeles, for example, magnet schools began with the goal of having a white population of 30% to 40%, a reflection of the district's demographics at the time.
In L.A., the school district is using the high-performing schools to help keep students — and the funding they bring — in the school district rather than losing them to the growing charter school sector.
DeVos framed magnets as part of a bigger push of increasing school choice, a phrase that usually signals free-market ideals that center on sending more students to charter schools and private schools.
"The education of a child is not a zero-sum game," DeVos said. "When a student excels academically, we do not place an asterisk next to his or her name based on the type of school he or she attends."
Magnet schools do come in for some criticism, along similar lines as charter schools, in that they may exclude the neediest students. L.A.'s magnet schools, for instance, have a smaller share of Latino students than the Los Angeles Unified School District as a whole. They are higher performing as a whole in part because of the gifted magnet programs that only accept already high-performing students.
DeVos also used the speech as an opportunity to recast the protest last week that blocked her from entering a Washington, D.C. public school.
The incident, she said, "demonstrates just how hostile some people are to change and to new ideas."