Magnets Lost in the Shuffle

By Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley

Amid a plethora of educational options -- charters, open enrollment, interdistrict programs, and private schools -- one of the choice movement’s largest and longest-running programs is being overlooked, if not forgotten. 

Magnet schools started in the late 1960s as a means of complying with court-mandated desegregation orders. The resulting programmatic innovations prompted some parents to remain in large city districts rather than flee to the suburbs. Today, these schools have millions of alumni and twice the enrollment of charters.

Assessing the impact of magnet programs presents some methodological challenges, but the consensus of research suggests that students who attend magnets have higher achievement and are given the opportunity to learn in schools that are more racially diverse.

When schools, magnet or not, are diverse, a large body of research finds numerous academic, psychological, and social benefits for students and their communities. Additionally, social science evidence shows that fewer educational resources are associated with many segregated minority schools, which, not surprisingly, have higher dropout rates and lower rates of college attendance and completion.

Any system of choice in a stratified, unequal society like ours can further exacerbate inequality and segregation. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the use of race in voluntary integration plans and invalidated one of the most common ways that districts create and maintain diverse schools.

The decision initially threw into question whether any race-conscious policies could be legal, although civil rights advocates believe that carefully constructed plans remain constitutional. Importantly, the lessons we have learned from magnet schools have implications for all districts interested in designing student assignment policies that pursue diversity in this era of decreasing legal flexibility, growing parent choice, and increasing racial diversity.

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