Two years ago, when Prince George's County introduced magnet schools, officials hoped they would have the intended effect of desegregating the nation's 14th-largest system without forced busing.
Leaders are confident that the initial goal has been met. But the magnets have had another effect: The emphasis on smaller classes and highly specialized education has created an unrelenting demand for more of the programs, a demand that can be met only after hard political decisions are made.
At the center of those decisions is whether a school system already facing spending limits should create more magnet schools, costing up to $1 million each, to satisfy goals that have little to do with integration.
"To the extent that we can, everybody who wants to make a choice ought to have an opportunity to make that choice," said Thomas Hendershot, Board of Education chairman.
While school officials have not estimated the cost to fulfill the wishes of all the parents who want pupils in magnet schools, some education leaders caution that the county clearly can't afford that kind of expansion.
"You have to be realistic," said James Garrett, a member of a citizens committee addressing future planning for the magnets, which offer well-equipped and well-staffed programs in math and science, foreign languages, fine arts and traditional studies. "We feel good today, but at some point we're going to have to pay."
Beyond that, others say expansion may only weaken the attraction of existing programs.
"I've heard people say, 'What are we going to do, magnetize the entire school system?' " Deputy Superintendent Edward Felegy noted recently.
This is the problem facing a committee of 100 citizens that is preparing recommendations on the magnet program. The committee findings will be presented to the Board of Education next month.
As the study continues, the county will be under the scrutiny of educators from across the nation. The Prince George's desegregation effort has become a model around the nation, propelled into a national spotlight by its success in establishing 11 programs at 41 schools since 1985. In that time, the number of children enrolled in magnet programs has climbed from 1,591 to more than 13,000 this year.
For now, the committee has immediate questions to address:Should the county open more magnet programs to alleviate the waiting list of more than 2,500 pupils, 80 percent of them black? Should the county renew a "continuity" policy that gives youngsters who enter the schools in the early grades first choice for high school programs, possibly shutting out latecomers? Can the county provide enough seats and appropriate programs in high schools to receive the thousands of pupils already in the elementary programs as well as those seeking entrance?
In a sense, these are questions generated by the program's popularity.
Designed to foster desegregation without mandatory busing, the magnet schools have attracted students from throughout the county to special programs.
About 12 percent of the county's 103,000 pupils are enrolled in magnet programs. Another 12 percent attend schools with magnet programs but do not participate fully in the special classes.
While expansion has been rapid, it has not kept up with the demand. The Montessori program for preschoolers, for example, has a waiting list of 645 children.
The problem of access is compounded as officials chart the course of the 11,000 students currently moving through elementary and middle school magnet programs.
Certain areas are burgeoning already. In the math and science schools, for example, there are 415 students in the sixth grade and only 250 seats for entering seventh graders in math and science.
Some of the questions have a direct impact on who gets into the popular schools.
Kimberly Gill was the 18th student to sign up during registration last spring for the new University High at Suitland High School, after her family camped out overnight to ensure her place in the registration line. But she still failed to capture one of the 171 seats in the school's first class.
School officials did not know at registration time that the new school was effectively filled, magnet coordinator Joyce Thomas said. Policies guaranteeing seats to middle school magnet students and neighborhood children, most of them black, made it virtually impossible for a black student such as Gill to get in.
The "continuous enrollment" policy, adopted as a temporary measure by the Board of Education in February, was meant to ensure that students already in magnet programs can continue in similar academic programs in secondary school.
The availability of magnet high school programs is a real concern to Kathy Hackett. Her son Ryan will have spent most of his earlier school years in the small classes and advanced courses at the Talented and Gifted programs at Kenmoor elementary and middle schools in Landover.
But by the time the sixth grader gets to high school, there is no guarantee of a spot in any magnet program.
"There's no way they can send these kids back to their neighborhood schools," Hackett said recently, citing reasons that include broken friendships and an insufficient number of advanced classes.
Officials say the policy makes academic good sense for the students involved, but they acknowledge that it could shut out students who do not get on the magnet track early.
"The earlier you get your youngster into a magnet, the better chance they have of surviving," Felegy said. "But there will always be seats -- just not as many."
Almost from the beginning, the county has wrestled with the scope of the magnet program, a politically sensitive issue because most of the unmet demand comes from blacks.
Under the court-ordered desegregation plan, the magnet program gives preference to white applicants at magnet schools in predominantly black communities. Children who regularly attend those schools generally participate in the magnet programs, and black children account for 60 percent of all magnet students.
But those black children who do not live near magnet schools have difficulty getting in: All of the students on the waiting list for French immersion programs and a new performing arts high schools are black, as are those on a waiting list for seats in humanities courses, extended day care programs and the University High School.
Those who oppose expanding the magnet programs cite concerns about their impact on the entire system. Further expansion not linked to desegregation, they say, likely would drain resources away from most of the students in the system, which is 61 percent black.
Funded this year with $5 million in federal and state desegregation grants, the current magnet program siphons little local funds from regular schools. But magnet schools designed to satisfy a waiting list, not desegregation, would not necessarily qualify for the outside funds.
Some of the answers to the questions now before them, officials say, are linked to the future of the 131 schools that educate 65 percent of Prince George's students.
From the beginning, Murphy has promoted the magnet schools as an educational model that should spur parents to push improvements in all schools. For example, full-day kindergartens, now available only in some magnet schools, could be opened at all schools eventually. The charge to the magnets then, Murphy said, would be to introduce programs for 4-year-olds.
"Your magnets . . . are out there in the front leading the way," he said, noting that fiscal realities impose limits.
Prince George's school spokesman Brian J. Porter notes the significance of the current debate. "We are at a turning point," he said. "We've come so far so fast, we've now got to deal with the wave we've created."