This article examines the origins of magnet schools in public education, and gives a brief history of the major events and court cases that shaped the magnet school concept. After an overview further describing magnet school systems, and a brief summary using current magnet school statistics, the article develops a central idea that the social context and public perception of magnet schools has changed over time. This idea is explored to uncover the past and present contexts for public magnet schools so as to compare the values and objectives from their inception. The article then examines an important Supreme Court decision that will inevitably change the social and racial makeup of magnet schools, and explores the legal and social ramifications of that Supreme Court decision.
Alternative Education > Magnet Schools Keywords Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Busing; De Facto Segregation; De Jure Segregation; Desegregation; Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA); Magnet Schools; Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP); Re-segregation; Parents v. Seattle; Separate but Equal Doctrine; White Flight
Magnet Schools: De Jure Success / De Facto Failure?
History of Magnet School Development
Magnet schools were originally created to offer an alternative for racially integrating the nation's public school system. Before magnet schools, the most common method for creating racial diversity in public school districts was to assign students to attend specific schools, or to bus students to more distant schools. The term "magnet" came into common usage in the 1970's when policymakers - whose primary intention was to desegregate schools - created specialized, high-quality education programs in an effort to make inner city schools 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" (Goldring & Smrekar, 2002, p 1).
Essentially, magnet schools evolved as a creative solution to fulfill the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision, which overturned the previous "separate but equal" doctrine that the Supreme Court had announced in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. The Brown Supreme Court decision, written in 1954, states,
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment (Brown vs. Board of Ed., 1954, p 12).
The Fourteenth Amendment
The relevant part of the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. constitution asserts, "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." Relating to this, the federal court decisions from Brown up to the present have followed the precedent of making a legal distinction between a school segregated by laws or official policies (known as "de jure" segregation) and a school segregated because of individual choices or social practices - known as "de facto" segregation (Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003, p. 32). The most recent Supreme Court decision that pertains to school districts and magnet schools (a decision reached June 28, 2007 - and discussed more fully below) also uses the de jure / de facto legal precedence.
At the time of the Brown decision, and for over a decade thereafter, segregation was explicit in the constitutions of several U.S. states, and such de jure segregation was also contained in the ordinances of some northern and western school districts. De jure laws and ordinances affecting public education were forced by court order to be deracinated from all legal codes, and those school districts that had created de jure systems of segregation were ordered to desegregate and find a way to make racially integrated schools. Thus, the Brown Supreme Court decision initiated a long period of public school desegregation via a string of closely-related lawsuits and federal court orders. Over the course of resolving yet other Supreme Court decisions, as well as other specific federal court orders in several states, it became apparent that magnet schools were the best means to increase white student enrollment in predominantly black schools, and black student enrollment in predominantly white schools (Arcia, 2004, p. 2).
Birth Of Magnet Schools
Magnet schools came into existence only after other trials and experiments in desegregation encountered too much resistance, were stopped by court decisions, or outright failed. After the Brown decision, most communities and their public school systems did very little to redress their segregated status quos, which led to the 1968 Supreme Court case Green v. County School Board, Va., wherein that state's "freedom of choice" plan was declared unacceptable because the "freedom of choice" strategy did not produce school desegregation. The decision included some truly startling facts: "During the [freedom of choice] plan's three years of operation, no white student has chosen to attend the all-Negro school, and although 115 Negro pupils enrolled in the formerly all-white school, 85% of the Negro students in the system still attend the all-Negro school" (Green v. County, 1968, p 1).
After the Green decision, federal courts began to order more extreme remedies for desegregation, culminating in the 1971 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision, which led school districts to commonly use busing to end segregation. Congress subsequently supported the Swann decision with its 1972 Emergency School Aid Act (ESAA), which provided federal aid to those school districts actively endeavoring to desegregate their schools. However, there was strong resistance to "forced busing." For example, an angry mob of white parents stoned school buses carrying black children in Boston, Massachusetts, while others bombed buses carrying black children in Pontiac, Michigan (Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003, p. 33), and although extreme violence was isolated, strong social resistance was pervasive.
The 1972 ESAA was actually the impetus for magnet schools as this Act provided funds for the development of magnet schools. Its authors envisioned that through voluntary enrollment the schools would create racial balance; the concept is much the same as the previous "freedom of choice" plan, except with some additional benefits to make the choice more attractive - like a magnet. This was the period when “magnet programs and schools were placed in predominantly black neighborhoods to attract white students,” and vice versa. Magnet schools were also intended to raise educational achievement and to offer comprehensive specialized programs in humanities and sciences, e.g. theater, dance, biotechnology, communications, and language (Arcia, 2004, p. 3).
Once initiated by the ESAA, magnet schools quickly increased as a means of desegregation- particularly after the 1974 Supreme Court case, Milliken v. Bradley, which arose to remedy Detroit, Michigan's mostly black school district. A lower court had attempted to create a solution that would mix the masses of African American children in the inner city with those in the largely white suburbs, but the Supreme Court declared that suburbs could not be forced to participate unless "racially discriminatory acts of the state or local school districts … have been a substantial cause of interdistrict segregation" (Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003, p. 34). If a city had become segregated from actions taken or policies created by its own school board (which was the case with Detroit), then the city had to solve its own segregation problems within its own borders without mandating suburban school district participation.
Milliken v. Bradley consequently opened the door for a phenomenon known as "white flight," and also marked a constitutional limit in America's efforts to integrate its schools. After the Milliken v. Bradley verdict, high-income and middle-class white parents made an exodus out of the inner cities of America and created the nation's enormous number of suburbs - accompanied by predominantly white school districts. Other affluent families abandoned the public schooling system altogether and began sending their children to private schools ('Still separate," 2007, p 12). After 1974 and the sudden end to busing - along with yet another Supreme Court decision, the 1975 Morgan v. Kerrigan case - in which federal courts affirmed that magnet schools were a legally sound method of desegregation - magnet schools became the most feasible option for desegregating the nation's public school system.
The Magnet System
The federal magnet program even survived the later elimination of the Emergency School Aid Act that had originally created the program. “Since 1985, support for schools has been provided through MSAP, the federally funded Magnet Schools Assistance Program” (Arcia, 2004, p. 3). By the 1991-92 school year, “more than 1.2 million students were enrolled in magnet schools in 230 school districts, and during the 1999-2000 school year there were more than 1,372 magnet schools across the United States” (Goldring & Smrekar, 2002, p 2). Magnet schools are typically established in urban school districts where student enrollment exceeds 10,000. Based on U.S. Department of Education statistics, “53 percent of large urban districts include magnet school programs as part of their desegregation plans, as compared with only 10 percent of suburban districts” (Goldring & Smrekar, 2002, p 3). Magnet school programs are extremely popular, as measured by the fact that the request for student enrollment in over 75 percent of all districts with magnets is greater than school capacity, and half of these districts maintain long waiting lists (Goldring & Smrekar, 2002, p 4).
Over the years, districts have supported magnet schools with large investments of their resources. On average, expenditures per student are “10 percent higher” in districts that have developed magnet programs, and
almost three-fourths of magnet programs also include additional expenses for staffing allowances in their budgets. Some magnet programs are funded through state desegregation funds, although most are funded by three-year grants through the above-mentioned federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which began awarding grants from 1985. These funds are provided to districts that are either implementing magnet programs voluntarily, or that are acting under court desegregation orders. Between 1985 and 1998, about 379 MSAP grants ($750 million) were awarded to 171 school districts in 35 states and the District of Columbia (Goldring & Smrekar, 2002, p 6).
Changing Social Context
Even as magnet schools were spreading, they were apparently transforming and moving away from their original, fundamental purpose of desegregating public schools - which, whether segregation is categorized as de...
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