The thread about charters got me to thinking about magnet schools, which are similar in some ways. Kentucky doesn't have charter schools, but my district has a ton of magnet schools, including the elementary school DS attends. I have mixed feelings about them.
On the positive side, they can provide a diverse array of choices for parents and students, all fully within the public school system. Elementary choices in our district include a Spanish immersion school and DS's school, which is a magnet for individually prescribed education. This basically means they're much better than average at differentiated instruction. The school also developing more and more of an arts focus, thanks in large part to a really passionate art teacher. At the middle school level in our district the choices really ramp up: there's an all boys school that somehow "teaches through the lense of African American history and culture." It starts in 6th grade and currently goes up the 9th. One grade year will be added each year until it goes to 12th. There's a fine and performing arts school that starts in 4th grade (kids have to go through a rigorous audition process to get in) and goes through 8th in the same building. Then there's a high school program within another school. There's a pre-engineering magnet within one middle school, there's a continuation of the Spanish immersion magnet, there's a "Traditional" magnet school that focuses on strong college prep academics, there's a gifted program that starts in 3rd grade and continues through high school, there's both a high school math/science magnet and a high school pre-engineering magnet. And that's just a taste of the magnet/specialty programs available.
Part of me thinks, "Wow, what a wonderful array of choices. It's great that they're trying to serve such a wide population of learning styles." Another part of me thinks, "Whatever happened to just getting a good well balanced education? Isn't specialization what college or trade school is supposed to be about?
The direct negative side of magnet schools I've seen in our district is that, since there are still a large number of traditional neighborhood schools, those schools in the poorer parts of town tend to lose the students who could be an asset to the school to magnet schools. My son's school is both a magnet and a neighborhood school. We live less than a mile from the school, in a part of the neighborhood that's middle to upper middle class. Within the school's small district there are streets with smaller houses that tend to house working class families as well as several apartment complexes that offer subsidized housing. Because of the magnet program (which is very highly regarded) we get students from the uniformly affluent south side of town as well as kids from our side of town but not our small district whose parents want them to get a better education than they'd get at their neighborhood school. This means the three other schools within a few miles of us have even fewer students from high achieving families than they would otherwise have. It gets even worse in our neighborhood at the middle school level. Our neighborhood middle school pulls from DS's school plus the three other schools in our part of town. All the magnet kids from the south side of town either go to one of the magnet schools or their highly regarded neighborhood middle schools. This leaves only the neighborhood kids from DS's school to move on, and I don't know a single family from our street that has sent their kids on to the local middle school. They've all gotten them into magnets. This means the local middle school basically gets a large population of low achieving kids. I'm sure there are some exceptions, but I kind of wonder if the school would be better off if there weren't magnet programs to pull away the high achieving kids.
So, long story short, while I personally like what DS's school is able to do because of its magnet status, I have really mixed feelings about them in principle. DH and I talk about moving back north (he's from Wisconsin and I'm from Michigan) frequently. If we ever do that, I think I'd like to move to a small school district with well regarded schools and no magnet programs.