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Reviving Magnet Schools: Strengthening a Successful Choice Option

Authors: Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg
Date Published: February 03, 2012

This policy brief refocuses our attention on the longstanding magnet sector. It is issued during a time of complex political and legal circumstances and seeks to understand how a variety of factors—including the Parents Involved ruling and the transition to a U.S. Department of Education led by the Obama Administration—have influenced federally-funded magnet programs.
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Executive Summary


Magnet schools make up the largest system of choice in the U.S. They were originally conceived to accomplish the twin goals of innovation and integration. Over the years, however, the integrative mission of magnet programs has somewhat receded, particularly during the second Bush Administration. Meanwhile, political and financial support has focused on the rapidly expanding charter school sector, even as research has suggested that charters are not, on average, performing better than regular public schools. 

The following policy brief refocuses our attention on the more longstanding magnet sector. It is issued during a time of complex political and legal circumstances and seeks to understand how a variety of factors—including the Parents Involved ruling and the transition to a U.S. Department of Education led by the Obama Administration—have influenced federally-funded magnet programs.

Data from our 2011 survey of magnet school leaders indicates that magnet schools are continuing to evolve. Significant differences emerged between the two most recent magnet-funding cycles, the first overseen by the Bush Administration (in the midst of the Parents Involved decision) and the second by Obama’s Department of Education. Respondents connected to the 2010-2013 funding cycle indicated that their magnet programs were associated with more inclusive admissions processes, a resurgence of interest in pursuing racially diverse enrollments and an increased willingness to allow out-of-district students to attend magnet programs.

Respondents from all federal funding cycles reported that their magnet schools were linked to evidence of heightened academic achievement, very high levels of demand and self-sustaining programs (i.e. the magnet school or program continued to flourish after the funding cycle ended). 

While the respondent pool was not large, and though federally funded magnets are simply a subset of all magnet programs, the data highlight early signs of what may be an important shift towards the original goals of the magnet concept. Survey participants also underscored the on-going popularity and success of their magnet programs. More research is, of course, needed, but all of these trends indicate that it is important to continue to provide support for the magnet school sector, and to include equalizing federal funding for magnet and charter school programs as part of a federal policy agenda focused on innovation and equity.

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