Prince George's County School Superintendent John A. Murphy will propose establishing 26 magnet schools -- with about 10 to open this fall -- as an answer to a federal court order to further desegregate the county's 175 schools.
Murphy's proposal, outlined yesterday in an interview, constitutes a dramatic departure from previous county desegregation plans, most of which relied exclusively on busing, and would be the only major magnet program in the Washington area.
His blueprint, which he said could shift up to 30,000 elementary, middle and high school students into racially balanced schools, now goes before the county Board of Education. Board Chairman Angelo Castelli said yesterday that board members are receptive to the proposal but want more information. "I think magnet schools are an excellent concept that has been accepted by courts all over the country," he said.
If approved by the board, the magnet plan would be presented to U.S. District Judge Frank A. Kaufman, who is overseeing the county's 13-year-old desegregation lawsuit. The board has until April 22 to present its alternative to a recent report by an expert panel, which recommended extensive busing and school closings to promote desegregation.
"Busing doesn't solve any educational problems," Murphy said yesterday. "I'm totally confident people will opt for the magnet program if we make it exciting enough. Do they want to spend their money on the bus or do they want to spend it on educational programs?"
By offering special programs unavailable in neighborhood schools -- performing arts or bilingual instruction, for example -- magnet schools can encourage the movement of children out of racially segregated neighborhoods, thereby integrating the magnet school.
Murphy said the magnet schools would admit students according to race in order to maintain racial guidelines established by Kaufman: enrollments of no more than 80 percent and no less than 10 percent black.
The program would be used in addition to the current desegregation plan, Murphy said, but eventually could reduce mandatory busing.
The proposal drew a mixed, if cautious, review from the county NAACP, which filed the desegregation lawsuit against the county in 1972.
"The NAACP does not oppose the concept of magnet schools, but . . . . does reserve the right to look at the way they are implemented to be sure they don't discriminate," said John Rosser, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a member of the civil rights organization.
"If the admissions procedure is applied judiciously, then people will elect to participate and the concept would work out all right," he said. But, he added, "magnet schools can be just as discriminatory as any other system if you start restricting people's entrance . . . . It cannot be the answer to the problem in the county. It may offer a part of the answer."
In Milwaukee, a system Murphy cited as a model magnet school system, the community has been generally supportive, school officials there said, but there have been some complaints about access.
"In some of our more popular programs it certainly causes some consternation," said school spokesman Bob Tesch. "There are voices who are opposed . . . people who say black people are carrying the burden."
For the most part, he said, Milwaukee's 30 magnet schools and 10 smaller magnet programs have been successful.
"It certainly has been an easy way to desegregate the schools . . . , " Tesch continued. "We were spared the violence of Louisville and Boston . . . . When parents know what's at the end of the bus line, they'll happily enroll their child in the school of their choice. Such enrollment will help desegregate a school system."
In Milwaukee, magnet programs include a vocational-technical school and a school specializing in international studies.
Murphy said he has not decided which programs will be offered in the Prince George's schools. But there is parental interest in schools for gifted children, performing arts schools and "work-place" schools, he said.
He has already asked the board to implement in the fall a pilot program of magnet work-place schools, which get their name from the fact that parents can choose schools near where they work. The schools would offer before- and after-school care.
The magnet proposal, like other efforts to expand school programs in the county, faces a major barrier in getting funding. According to officials who implemented the Milwaukee program, magnet schools cost an average of 10 percent more than a traditional school.
"Money is going to be an issue," Murphy said. Although the cost of the magnet program has not yet been computed, he projected that "it will be considerably less" than the recommendations contained in the expert panel report submitted to Kaufman last month.
Although the exact locations of the magnet schools have not been determined, according to Murphy, they will be targeted for the predominantly black areas inside the Beltway and the predominantly white areas outside the Beltway. Students may be required to take long bus rides, Murphy said, as they would under the recommendations of the expert panel, "but they're opting to take that ride. I think that's quite different."