Education pluralism: The state of magnet schools

December 7, 2022

During his senior year at the magnet school Tampa Bay Technical High School, public school student Nathan Gonzalez was creating magazine advertisements for a 55+ community during class. Along with getting access to unique electives that could translate to specific careers, he said the school environment was like a family.  

Tampa Bay Tech – once a vocational school – is now just one of many public magnet schools available within its public school district. Other magnet schools in the district include five International Baccalaureate schools, four collegiate schools, and a variety of schools with emphases ranging from performing arts to plumbing to radiology to business/finance to marine environmentalism.  

Florida is known for being a leader in education choice. But it’s important to note that it is a leader not only in private school choice, but also in public school choice like magnet schools. 

What is a magnet school? 

A magnet school is a school that has a specific focus or theme and exists within a public school district. Open to all students regardless of ZIP code, magnet schools attract families with interest in their theme, which can include emphases such as STEM, fine and performing arts, International Baccalaureate, language immersion, and career and technical education. 

While considered a school of choice within the public school district system, magnet schools differ from public charter schools for several reasons: Magnet schools are bound by regulations from which charters are often exempt; receive oversight from the same administration and school board as other public schools; and cannot be run by for-profit organizations (as some charters are allowed to do). Because of the limited spots available – and to show students’ interest in the school focus – some schools require applications, portfolios or entrance exams, though 75% nationwide do not require entrance exams; some use a lottery system. 

A quick history 

Magnet schools came into existence in the 1960s to encourage the voluntary desegregation of public schools. The idea was to attract families like a “magnet” based on the specialty of the school, breaking the barriers of ZIP code, race, and socioeconomic status. They have been successful in this objective and have also often been exemplary schools. 

The first magnet school was McCarver Elementary, established in Tacoma, Wash., in 1968 with the explicit purpose of reducing racial isolation. The next year the second magnet school was created in Boston – Trotter Elementary School. By 1971 there was a magnet school at Skyline High School in Dallas. 

By 1975 the term “magnet school” – which grew out of its use as a description of how they work – had become mainstream and was adopted into federal legislation funding these types of schools. 

A look at the nation 

As of the 2019-20 school year, there are over 4,300 magnet schools teaching 3.5 million public school students nationwide. While some years in the past couple of decades have seen slight decreases in the number of magnet schools, they have generally grown significantly. During the 2015-16 school year there were over 3,200 magnet schools serving roughly 2.6 million students nationwide. (In the 2000-01 school year there were a little over 1,400 magnet schools in the nation.) 

All 50 states allow for magnet schools or programs. All states have free-standing magnet schools except for Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii, though each of those states does offer magnet programs of some kind. 

Florida and California have the most magnet schools in the nation – more than 600 in Florida and over 400 in California. 

By the 1980s, Congress passed the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which gives federal funds to school districts under court order or a federally approved desegregation plan.   

In recent years, federal appropriations for new awards under MSAP has generally declined. In fiscal year 2021, Congress appropriated $23.6 million for new awards, while in fiscal year 2010, $100 million was appropriated to this program.  

The 2021 appropriation is up from 2018’s $10.9 million. But overall the program’s appropriations hovered in the $90 million range from 2011-2018. 

One study analyzing the possible impact of magnet schools/programs on declines on Math and Reading Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that magnet school participation did not have a significant impact on declines for their study group. 

A look at Utah 

Utah’s school districts include some limited offerings of both free-standing magnet schools while others offer magnet programs. Because magnet schools are simply part of the districts, state data does not list them separately. However, individual district information can be found about magnet schools or programs in the following districts: Alpine, Canyons, Davis, Granite, Jordan, Logan, Murray, Ogden City, Provo, Salt Lake, Washington and Weber 

According to U.S. News & World Report, the top three best magnet schools in the state – based on state assessments and teacher/student ratios – are the Draper School (Canyons), Grant School (Murray) and Riverside School (Washington).  

There is little data as to how magnet school enrollment increased during the pandemic. Because they are part of the districts, they likely often had the same regulations and policies as their non-magnet counterparts. 

There is little research on COVID-19 and magnet school enrollment as a solution for parents. Still, magnet schools remain an important choice for parents – regardless of pandemics or emergencies – who want to find unique opportunities for their students while remaining in a public school district. Unique options and public school offerings are not and need not be seen as mutually exclusive. 

Pluralism in education should include and support a diversity of options that exist entirely within public school districts, including magnet schools and programs.

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