Magnet schools were created close to five decades ago as an alternative to desegregation. However, in the past few decades they have become less common.
But in multiracial cities like Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Newark and Washington, school officials are refocusing on magnet schools as public schools are coming under pressure from charter and private campus options.
The number of children in Miami-Dade County attending magnet programs — which admit students from anywhere in the district and focus on themes like art, law or technology — has grown by 35% in the past four years. These children now account for more than 15% of the district’s total enrollment.
This is a pattern similar to that throughout the country, with as many as 2.8 million students attending magnet schools. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science at Columbia University, says that magnets are becoming an alternative, “while keeping the choice constrained more explicitly within the traditional district.”
According to Mokoto Rich of the New York Times, magnets are seen as a way to save public schools, since they are a part of the public school system, they follow district rules and their teachers are unionized, unlike those at charter schools. Critics worry that magnets could exhaust funds needed for neighborhood schools, just like charter schools and voucher programs, and that they could increase racial segregation.
“With completely unregulated choice, there are people who choose and those who choose not to choose,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “So the most unmotivated parents will just get assigned to a school, and motivated parents will eyeball a school racially and ethnically to see if their child will ‘fit in.’”
Miami students can attend zoned schools, yet numerous parents showed up at a lottery for the chance for their children to get into one of the county’s magnet programs. In order to increase diversity, the government awards grants to districts to encourage them to open or expand magnet schools. Charter schools receive four times as much money, but are not required to meet integration goals. Enrollment for charters has increased in Miami by 48% in the last four years, but advocates for magnet schools say that students who are actively interested in their classes have a higher tendency to attend class, avoid behavior problems, and graduate.
Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade County, said it made less and less sense to put students “through the same 7:30 to 2:30, bell-to-bell instruction without allowing them some degree of individuality.”
Magnet school supporters say that districts need to inform parents of their options in order to increase diversity. Executive Director of Magnet Schools of America Scott Thomas says that it is difficult to get an application to a magnet school, and that the system “tends to favor the most educated and assertive parents.”
Teachers unions say that districts need to make community-based schools a priority, and President of the National Education Association Dennis Van Roekel says that if local schools were good, then parents would want to send their children there. Parents who choose magnet schools see it as a way to give their children advantages they didn’t have.