40 Years of Magnet Schools: Then & Now

In honor of our 40th anniversary, Metis takes a 40-year look at the history of magnet schools in combating racial segregation.

Forty years ago, the first magnet schools were created as a tool to further racial desegregation in large urban school districts. In contrast to court-ordered methods and strategies such as forced bussing, the vision was that magnets would provide a voluntary means to create more diverse schools by offering parents and their children a unique environment or distinctive educational experience (such as a thematic curriculum or special pedagogical model). As the courts began to recognize magnet schools as a school desegregation method, the number of magnet schools began to grow. With the advent of the U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) in 1985, federal funds have been appropriated to support the development and implementation of magnet school programs. To date, the federal investment in magnet schools exceeds $1 billion.

One of the watershed events in the trajectory of the magnet school movement was the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 lawsuit in 2007. This case challenged the legality of school districts using an individual student’s race as a deciding factor in student assignment. While the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation is a compelling state interest—and that magnet schools are in fact a useful tool to promote desegregation—the stipulations in this decision regarding the narrowly tailored use of race in student assignment served to undermine magnets’ role in promoting desegregation. Over the past decade, magnet schools have been folded into the larger narrative of school choice, and face increasingly stiff competition from charter schools and other school choice options, including vouchers. These challenges notwithstanding, according to a report commissioned by Magnet Schools of America, there are now 4,340 magnet schools across 46 states, which collectively educate nearly 3.5 million students across the U.S.

There is a significant body of research spanning several decades that speaks to the benefits, both academic and non-academic, of attending diverse schools and, conversely, the harms of attending segregated schools. Documented benefits for all children attending diverse schools include improving non-cognitive and leadership skills and reducing bias and racial stereotypes. The results regarding the impact of magnet schools on students’ academic outcomes, however, are mixed, due in large measure to the methodological challenge associated with studying a model that places significant emphasis on the uniqueness of each magnet school’s program.

Metis’s first foray into the world of magnets was in 1989, when we were engaged by the Superintendent of Community School District 1 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to write a MSAP grant proposal. The much needed, multi-year project—named Project Phoenix—was awarded to the school district. Today, almost 30 years later, CSD 1 is in the forefront of the school integration movement in NYC, and Metis has a national reputation as a leader in magnet school development, research, and evaluation.

For more information about Metis’s magnet school work, please contact Claire Aulicino.