Magnet School History

By Naomi Dillon

Four decades ago, the promise of racial integration spawned the magnet school movement, a trend designed to combat the inequities built into America’s segregated past, particularly in education.  One of the earliest forms of school choice, magnet schools -- with their thematic programs or instructional strategies -- were seen as a means to draw white families who had left for the suburbs back to inner-city and racially homogenous schools.

Whether the approach has worked is a matter of perspective, but it’s a matter of record that the magnet concept has moved away from its original intent. Failed, costly attempts at large-scale reform, combined with a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling outlawing race as a sole factor in admission decisions, have moved magnets to the sidelines of the school choice conversation.

What happened to this reform model? Why did something with so much promise go awry? Look no further than the story of the Kansas City, Mo., school district -- home to the most expansive and expensive desegregation plan in U.S. history, one based almost entirely on the promise of magnet schools.

Thanks to a district court judge’s ruling, over a 10-year period starting in 1987, Kansas City and the state of Missouri spent more than $2 billion through court-ordered tax increases to restore racial balance and turn around the struggling district. Every school was converted into a magnet, with expensive facilities and programs that were in turn thwarted by ongoing administrative turnover and political unrest.

“I don’t think magnets helped with academic achievement in core classes, and I’m convinced that really, up until the last 10 years, most educators didn’t believe poor black kids could learn to deep levels of understanding,” says school board member Arthur Benson, who represented the district as an attorney in what became known as the Jenkins v. State of Missouri case. “The magnet school program was grafted onto that.”

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