Magnet schools are public schools of choice that offer specialized curricula or instructional themes in a racially integrated setting. During the 1970s, magnet schools emerged as a voluntary desegregation tool in an era of enforced busing. Magnet schools are intended to provide a school choice option that minimizes the negative effects of “white flight”—the out-migration of white families to private or suburban schools in order to avoid interracial contact in school settings. Reinforcing the goal of developing a diverse student body in magnet schools was the 1975 Morgan v. Kerrigan decision in Boston and of federal funding support programs.
The federal government provides funding to promote the development of a diverse student population in order to support court-ordered or voluntary desegregation objectives. Initially, funding was obtained through the Emergency School Assistance Act, but now the majority of magnet schools receive funding through the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) developed in 1984. Schools applying for the grant initially declare one of three desegregation objectives: to reduce minority isolation through reducing the overall proportion of minority students in a school; to eliminate minority isolation by bringing minority enrollments to below 50 percent; and to prevent minority isolation by stopping minority enrollments exceeding 50 percent. In fiscal years 2006, 2007, and 2008, MSAP funding was set at $107 million for each year.
Magnet school numbers have increased rapidly since their introduction into the educational landscape. In 1991, 4 percent of school districts offered a magnet school option, and by 1994 this had doubled to nearly 8 percent. In 2002, the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) reported that 28 states maintained 1,736 magnet school options that educated a total of 3 percent of the national student body. As a comparison, in the same time frame, charter schools, a much-discussed school choice option, educated 1.2 percent of the population. Illinois has the highest percentage of students enrolled in magnet schools (15 percent), followed by Virginia (11 percent), California (9 percent), and North Carolina (8 percent). Half of all magnet schools are at the elementary level, while 20 percent are high schools. Eighty-five percent of magnet schools are located in large urban school districts with student populations exceeding 10,000; 55 percent are located in predominantly minority school districts and in districts with more than 50 percent of students eligible to participate in Free Lunch programs.
The research on the success of magnet schools in promoting racial integration shows mixed results. Several studies found that magnet schools do achieve some success as desegregation tools, but others found magnet schools unsuccessful in developing integrated organizations. The magnet school goal of reducing minority isolation has not been easily accomplished. The NCES reported that only 44 percent of those schools receiving MSAP grants achieved their goal of reducing minority isolation but 72 percent of schools were successful in preventing isolation (maintaining minority enrollment under 50 percent). However, far fewer schools intended to prevent isolation (82) than to reduce isolation (529).
Overall, the studies on magnet schools indicate three critical variables that affect the potential success of desegregation goals: the overall minority enrollment in the district; the trends in minority enrollments; and the type of magnet school. Research indicates that white families avoid schools with higher percentages of African American students; consequently, schools trying to prevent the increase of minority enrollments will probably be more successful than schools trying to eliminate or reduce minority isolation. The special focus and innovative curricula of the magnet schools, however, seek to overcome the racial fears of white parents.
School districts often provide additional funding to magnet schools to recruit more staff and faculty for such academic specialties as fine arts, computer technology, or health science. The result is often increased expenditures per pupil and lower student-teacher ratios when compared to other schools in the district, and this generates an air of prestige and exclusivity that tends to attract educated, middle-class parents to the schools. Indeed, one third of magnet schools are designated “highly” or “very” selective. Illustrating the popularity of the magnet option is the high percentage of schools—approximately 50 percent—that have student waiting lists.
Research suggests that the perception of academic excellence and student selectivity is more important to parents than is the specialized program of study. Moreover, those selecting the magnet option are more likely to be motivated parents with higher social class backgrounds and strong information networks who support their children’s academic activity. Some researchers argue, therefore, that school choice leads to a stratified and inequitable school system.
More recently, the courts have renounced the desegregation goals of magnet schools, specifically entrance decisions based on racial equity goals, as for example, in Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg in 2001 and Wessman v. Gittens in 1999. Race-conscious programs are suspect in an educational era defined by individual rights. The ever-increasing deregulation of schools and privileging of parental choice, manifest through vouchers and charter schools, coupled with an increased focus on the achievement and accountability goals legislated by No Child Left Behind, results in an education system that is unenthusiastic about the diversity goals integral in the development of magnet schools. Instead, magnet schools are constructed as prestigious schools offering academic excellence, and the opportunity to attend should be available to any child, regardless of race and economic status.
- Blank, Rolf K., Roger E. Levine, and Lauri Steele. 1996. “After 15 Years: Magnet Schools in Urban Education.” Pp. 154-72 in Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions and the Unequal Effects of School Choice, edited by B. Fuller, R. Elmore, and G. Orefield. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Saporito, Salvatore. 2003. “Private Choices, Public Consequences: Magnet School Choice and Segregation by Race and Poverty.” Social Problems 50:181-203.
- Smrekar, Claire and Ellen Goldring. 1999. School Choice and Urban America—Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity. New York: Teachers College Press.
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