Magnet schools, sometimes referred to as alternative schools or schools of choice, are public schools that provide an alternative to mandatory school assignment and busing by offering parents a choice among several school options with specialized curricular themes or instructional methods. The term magnet gained popularity in the 1970s when policy makers were designing desegregation plans in an effort to make them more attractive to parents, educators, and students. Magnet schools were established to promote racial diversity, improve scholastic standards, and provide a range of programs to satisfy individual talents and interests.
Since 1976, when federal courts accepted magnet schools as a method of desegregation (Morgan v. Kerrigan), their number has increased dramatically. By the 1991–1992 school year, Corrine Yu and William Taylor found that more than 1.2 million students were enrolled in magnet schools in 230 school districts. During the 1999–2000 school year there were more than 1,372 magnet schools across the United States. In some states, such as Illinois, a National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) study found that 12 percent of all students attend magnet schools.
Magnet schools are typically established in urban school districts with large student enrollments (over ten thousand). According to the U.S. Department of Education, 53 percent of large urban school districts include magnet school programs as part of their desegregation plans, as compared to only 10 percent of suburban districts. For example, NCES reports that in the City of Chicago Public School District, 45 percent of all public schools are magnets, serving 48 percent of the student body. Over half of all magnet programs are located in low socioeconomic districts. Although they can involve all grade levels, Yu and Taylor and Roger Levine found that more than half of the nation's magnet programs serve elementary school students, and only 20 percent of magnets serve the high school level. The most common type of magnet school is one that emphasizes a particular subject area, such as math and science, computers and technology, or a foreign language. Other programs offer a unique instructional approach, such as Montessori or Paideia.
Magnet school programs are popular, as measured by the fact that over 75 percent of all districts with magnets have a greater demand for student slots than they can fill; Rolf Blank, Roger Levine, and Lauri Steel found that half of these districts maintain long waiting lists. With this level of demand, most districts manage the admissions process using a lottery format. Others rely upon a first-come, first-served arrangement. Only about one-third of all magnet programs use a selective admissions policy; these usually involve either a minimum test score requirement or in a performing arts magnet, performance in an audition.
In many instances, districts have supported magnet schools with a considerable investment of resources. On average, expenditures per student are 10 percent higher in districts with magnets; almost three-fourths of magnet programs have additional staffing allowances as well. Some magnet programs are funded through state desegregation funds. Most are funded under three-year grants through the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which began awarding grants in 1985. These funds are made available to districts that are either implementing magnet programs voluntarily or that are acting on court-ordered desegregation. The MSAP plays a critical role in magnet school creation and expansion efforts nationwide. Currently, the program provides about $100 million each year to support magnet school programs; between 1985 and 1998, some 379 MSAP grants ($750 million) were awarded to 171 school districts in 35 states and the District of Columbia, according to Phyllis DuBois and her colleagues. In December 2001, the U.S. Department of Education awarded $37.2 million in MSAP grants to 24 school districts.
Research results are mixed as to the effectiveness of magnet schools. Adam Gamoran's 1996 study on student achievement compared students in magnet schools with those in Catholic schools, nonreligious private schools, and public comprehensive schools and found some advantages for magnet school students in achievement in reading and history. Similarly, Robert Crain found that career magnet schools in New York City helped raise students' reading scores. Other researchers, including Patricia Bauch, Ellen Goldring, and Claire Smrekar, have found that magnet schools provide more opportunities for parental involvement and effective communication between home and schools. In fact, studies by Mary Driscoll and Valerie Martinez, Kenneth Godwin, and Frank Kemerer have shown that parents who exercise choice report higher levels of satisfaction with their schools than do those who don't choose their children's schools. Mary Haywood Metz's studies of specific magnet schools indicate they tend be more innovative in terms of distinctive curricula and unique student–teacher relationships. However, larger-scale studies using national data contradict these findings. According to Lauren Sosniak and Carolyn Ethington's 1992 study, magnet and nonmagnet schools use similar curricula and modes of instruction. Smrekar and Goldring found that magnet schools do seem to afford teachers more autonomy and involvement in decision making, as choice advocates predict.
Several large urban school districts in the nation stand at the crossroads of sweeping changes in the use of magnet schools as tools for racial desegregation. In a series of major rulings in 1999 (Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, Eisenberg v. Montgomery County Public Schools, Tuttle v. Arlington County School Board, Wessman v. Gittens), federal courts repudiated school district efforts to maintain raceconscious admission policies in order to promote and ensure racial diversity through magnet schools. Under the precedent established in a 1995 Supreme Court ruling (in Adarandv. Pena, a case that involved a federal program that awarded a percentage of construction contracts to minority owned construction companies), race conscious programs that involve promoting diversity through strategies construed to involve "racial balancing" are constitutionally suspect and are subject to "strict scrutiny."
This elevated constitutional bar includes a two-pronged test that compels districts to prove that their racial classification scheme "furthers a compelling state interest" and is "narrowly tailored" (Adarand v. Pena). Consequently, unless school districts are currently under court order to remedy the effects of past racial discrimination in their systems, magnet school admissions policies must be race neutral. This standard of racial neutrality applies to school districts declared "unitary," where a federal court has ruled that a district has complied in good faith with desegregation decrees to eliminate dual school systems that discriminate between children on the basis of race. In order to gain a grant of "unitary status," districts must provide proof that they have acted "in good faith" to eliminate the vestiges of past racial discrimination in public education programs. More and more large urban school districts, including Dade County in Florida, are seeking and securing unitary status in federal court.
Bauch, Patricia, and Ellen Goldring. 1998. "Parent–Teacher Participation in the Context of School Restructuring." Peabody Journal of Education 73: 15–35.
Blank, Rolf, Roger Levine, and Lauri Steel. 1996. "After Fifteen Years: Magnet Schools in Urban Education." In Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions, and the Unequal Effects of School Choice, ed. Bruce Fuller, Richard F. Elmore, and Gary Orfield. New York: Teachers College Press.
Crain, Robert L. 1992. The Effectiveness of New York City's Career Magnet Schools: An Evaluation of Ninth Grade Performance Using an Experimental Design. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.
Driscoll, Mary E. 1992. "Changing Minds and Changing Hearts: Choice, Achievement, and School Community." In Choice: What Role in American Education? Symposium conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, Washington, DC.
DuBois, Phyllis, Bruce Christenson, Marian Eaton, and Michael Garet. 2001. Evaluation of the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, 1998 Grantees: Year 1 Interim Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Eaton, Susan, and Elizabeth Crutcher. 1996. "Magnets, Media, and Mirages." In Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, ed. Gary Orfield and Susan Eaton. New York: New Press.
Gamoran, Adam. 1996. "Student Achievement in Public Magnet, Public Comprehensive, and Private City High Schools." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 18: 1–18.
Levine, Roger. 1997. "Research on Magnet Schools and the Context of School Choice." Paper presented at the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights Issues Forum: Magnet Schools and the Context of School Choice: Implications for Public Policy, April, Washington DC.
Martinez, Valerie, Kenneth Godwin, and Frank Kemerer. 1996. "Public School Choice in San Antonio: Who Chooses and with What Effects?" In Who Chooses? Who Loses? Culture, Institutions and the Unequal Effects of School Choice, ed. Bruce Fuller, Richard F. Elmore, and Gary Orfield. New York: Teachers College Press.
Metz, Mary Haywood. 1986. Different by Design: The Context and Character of Three Magnet Schools. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Orfield, Gary. 2001. Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation. Cambridge, MA: The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University.
Smrekar, Claire, and Ellen Goldring. 1999. School Choice in Urban America: Magnet Schools and the Pursuit of Equity. New York: Teachers College Press.
Sosniak, Lauren and Carolyn Ethington. 1992. "When Public School 'Choice' Is Not Academic: Findings from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988." Educational Evaluationand Policy Analysis 14, 35–52.
Steel, Lauri, and Marian Eaton. 1996. Reducing, Eliminating, and Preventing Minority Isolation in American Schools: The Impact of the Magnet Schools Assistance Program. Report prepared for the Office of the Undersecretary, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC.
Steel, Lauri, and Roger Levine. 1994. Educational Innovation in Multiracial Contexts: The Growth of Magnet Schools in American Education. Palo Alto, CA: American Institutes for Research.
Yu, Corrine M., and William L. Taylor. 1997. Difficult Choices: Do Magnet Schools Serve Children in Need? Washington, DC: Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.
National Center for Education Statistics. 2001. NCES Statistical Analysis Report. Available from www.nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/overview.
CLAIRE E. SMREKAR