What Are Magnet Schools and Why are They Important?

Even if you’re well versed in the lingo of school choice — vouchers, charter schools and the like — odds are you might not be as up-to-date on the importance of magnet schools.

A recent report by the left-leading Brookings Institution finds that the media pays relatively little attention to magnet schools, which are specialized public schools, even though magnets have been part of the school choice landscape much longer than charter schools and even private school voucher programs.

Magnet schools are schools built upon a specific “theme” or subject matter, such as the arts, or science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) studies and accelerated learning programs for the gifted, to name a few.  

“Initially a tool for desegregation efforts in the 1970s (i.e., by encouraging white parents to stay in urban districts), magnets have evolved to serve a wide variety of purposes and settings,” note Morgan Polikoff and Tenice Hardaway, co-authors of the Brookings report.

“magnets have evolved to serve a wide variety of purposes and settings”

Although the United States boasts more than 3,000 magnet schools across some 600 school districts in 34 states, magnets are often misunderstood or simply overlooked entirely.

Even the most ardent fans of modern hip hop, for instance, would likely be surprised to discover that a hugely significant number of Millennial artists — such as the rap collectives Pro Era and Odd Future, and an endless list of “Soundcloud rappers” like Desiigner — were the product of magnet music schools.  

But if one googles “magnet schools,” the results yield just a third of the research offered when googling “charter schools.”

Brookings set out to change this — to “reintroduce magnet schools, describe their prevalence and characteristics, and propose some key research questions about these not-new-but-still-important schools of choice.”

The authors use numbers from the Common Core of Data (CCD) and information from district websites for every magnet school in California.

Their findings showed that even though magnet schools comprise just 3.7 percent of public schools in the nation, many states like Florida, Michigan and South Carolina have found magnets to be crucial

Their findings showed that even though magnet schools comprise just 3.7 percent of public schools in the nation, many states like Florida, Michigan and South Carolina have found magnets to be crucial elements of their educational offerings, accounting for more than ten percent of all public schools in each of the aforementioned states.

The students best served by these schools tend to be those overlooked by more traditional education environments. Magnet schools have higher proportions of black and Hispanic students in most states, but the wide range of “themes” for these schools means that magnets cater to a diverse selection of backgrounds and areas of study.

And although magnets often carry with them a reputation for serving mostly “gifted” students, these types of schools actually account for less than 20 percent of magnets in California, the Brookings study found. Ultimately the report reveals that magnets are as diverse as its students.

Millions of students will receive a magnet education this year, despite the relatively scant amount of attention these schools receive. But with more and more attention being paid to new ways of thinking about education, there’s a good chance magnets will serve a key role in the development of America’s next generation of bright minds and innovative thinkers.  

Head over to Brookings for the full report.

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.

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