The Houston Area Survey  
The Houston Area Survey
Home All Survey Questions Current PowerPoint Research Reports Other Publications Research Opportunities Contributing Sponsors Contact


Magnet school

In the U.S. education system, magnet schools are public schools with specialized courses or curricula. "Magnet" refers to how the schools draw students from across the normal boundaries defined by authorities (usually school boards) as school zones that feed into certain schools.

There are magnet schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. In the United States, where education is decentralized, some magnet schools are established by school districts and draw only from the district, while others are set up by state governments and may draw from multiple districts. Other magnet programs are within comprehensive schools, as is the case with several "schools within a school". In large urban areas, several magnet schools with different specializations may be combined into a single "center", such as Skyline High School in Dallas.

Magnet schools emerged in the United States in the 1970s as one means of remedying racial segregation in public schools, and they were written into law in Section 5301 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Authorization. Demographic trends following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education US Supreme Court decision revealed a pattern later characterized as white flight, the hypersegregation of blacks and whites, as the latter moved to the suburbs.

From 1985 to 1999, a US district court judge required the state of Missouri to fund the creation of magnet schools in the Kansas City Public Schools to reverse the white flight that had afflicted the school district since the 1960s. The district's annual budget more than tripled in the process. The expenditure per pupil and the student-teacher ratio were the best of any major school district in the nation. Many high schools were given college-level facilities. Still, test scores in the magnet schools did not rise; the black-white gap did not diminish; and there was less, not greater, integration. Finally, on September 20, 2011, The Missouri Board of Education voted unanimously to withdraw the district's educational accreditation status from January 1, 2012.

Within a few years, in locations such as Richmond, Virginia, additional magnet school programs for children with special talents were developed at facilities in locations that parents would have otherwise found undesirable. That effort to both attract voluntary enrollment and achieve the desired racial balance met with considerable success and helped improve the acceptance of farther distances, hardships with transportation for extracurricular activities, and the separation of siblings. Even as districts such as Richmond were released from desegregation court orders, the parental selection of magnet school programs has continued to create more racially diverse schools than would have otherwise been possible. With a wide range of magnet schools available, a suitable program could be found for more children than only the "bright" ones for whom the earliest efforts were directed.

Traditionally, these magnet schools are found in neighborhoods with large minority populations. They advertise their unique educational curricula in order to attract white students who do not live in the surrounding area. In this way, the schools act as a "magnet" pulling out-of-neighborhood students that would otherwise go to a school in their traditional attendance zone.

Most magnet schools concentrate on a particular discipline or area of study, while others (such as International Baccalaureate schools) have a more general focus. Magnet programs may focus on academics (mathematics, natural sciences, and engineering; humanities; social sciences; fine or performing arts) or may focus on technical/vocational/agricultural education.

Access to free transportation is a key component in facilitating racial diversity in magnet schools. According to a survey distributed at the Magnet Schools of America's (MSA) 2008 annual meeting, in magnet schools with free transportation services, non-white students comprise almost 33% of the student body, which is higher than the 23% found in magnet schools without such services. Moreover, 11.9% of magnet schools that do not provide transportation are largely one-race, while only 6.4% of magnet schools with the provision of transportation are characterized as one-race schools. Such services are integral in ensuring that potential out-of-neighborhood students have access to these schools of choice. Ultimately, the presence of free transportation contributes to more integrated magnet environments.

Across the country, magnet school application forms assume that its readers are proficient in reading and writing in English, understand the school's curriculum, and recognize what kinds of resources are offered to students at that respective school. In diverse urban contexts especially, these assumptions privilege some families over others. Parents who seek out magnet schools tend to be white, educated, middle-class, and English-fluent. Thus, in order to break down the racial disparities these schools were intended to dismantle, magnet school programs have to be intentional in not only their outreach efforts, but also how they create the application text itself.

Home | All Survey Questions | Current PowerPoint | Research Reports
Other Publications | Research Opportunities | Contributing Sponsors | Contact