What is a Magnet School?

Written By Grace Chen
Magnet schools – this article will help you better understand what they are and what their role may be in your family’s education. We’ll first introduce the concept of a Magnet school. Then we’ll go over in detail the function that Magnet schools have played originally and currently. After that we’ll share some basic facts about Magnet schools as well as go over pro and con positions regarding Magnet schools. Finally we’ll end the article by discussing whether a Magnet school is right for your family and how to get into a Magnet school. At the end of this article is a list of resources that was used to help write this article.


What is a Magnet school?

A Magnet school is part of the public school system. Usually students are zoned into their schools based on location. Students mostly go to the school which they are closest to (this may not always be true since boundaries can seem arbitrary). With Magnet schools, the public school system has created schools that exist outside of zoned school boundaries. The point of them is that they usually have something special to offer over a regular school which makes attending them an attractive choice to many students, thereby increasing the diversity of the student population within them (in theory).

Magnet schools are different from private or parochial schools in that they remain part of the public school system. They differ from Charter schools in that they remain part of the public school system bureaucratically. Charter Schools have a different organizational model (i.e. they have a charter that releases them from the regular school administration). Magnet schools operate under the same public school administration (they don’t operate on their own).

Distinguishing them from other public schools, Magnet schools usually have alternative or otherwise compelling modes of instruction. For example, you might find a Montessori Magnet school. A school doesn’t have to be a Magnet school to be a Montessori School. There are also public schools that aren’t Magnet schools which still offer fine academic experiences. Magnet schools differ from other public schools in that they receive additional funding to enable them to spend more money on their students, supplies, teachers, programs, etc.


History of Magnet school

Magnet schools first came into being in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a tool to further academic desegregation. The school was intended to “attract” (get the magnet metaphor?) students from across different school zones. So they had to do two things. 1) open their enrollment geographically across traditional school zones and 2) provide an environment or experience that would attract students and families from other school zones (thereby families would volunteer to desegregate their children to the Magnet school).

Original Purpose

The original purpose of a Magnet school was politically not to innovate in instructional approach solely but rather to create a school that would be so attractive, it would “attract” students to attend it rather than having to force students to bus to other schools to promote academic desegregation of students. The goal was to reduce racial segregation voluntarily.

Current Role of Magnet schools

Many Magnet schools still help increase diversity within the public school system and help families volunteer for desegregation. But over the last 20 years or so, some Magnet schools have taken on an a more competitive aspect in that they can only fill 10-20% of the students that apply to attend school on their campuses. The current role of Magnet schools, therefore, can often promote academic opportunity and excellence over their regular counterparts. Magnet schools often attract “gifted” students who score well in tests and receive good grades (about 1/3 of all Magnet schools use selection criteria to decide who they’ll invite to enroll for that year).

Magnet schools have three distinguishing characteristics:


  • Distinctive curriculum or instructional approach
  • Attract students from outside an assigned neighborhood attendance zone
  • Have diversity as an explicit purpose


Magnet School Facts

Magnets offer special curricula, such as math-science or performing arts programs, or special instructional approaches, such as academic achievement through application of Gardner’s learning styles.

Magnet schools have increased rapidly since the Federal Court’s acceptance of Magnet programs as a method of desegregation in 1975-76. Between 1982 and 1991, the number of individual schools offering Magnet programs nearly doubled and students enrolled in these programs almost tripled. Sometimes you’ll find Magnet programs as part of a school. They are known as Magnet “schools within a school” programs and other times you’ll find complete schools that are Magnet schools.


By the 1991-92 school year, more than 1.2 million students were enrolled in Magnet schools in 230 school districts. In the 1999-2000 school year, 1,372 Magnet schools operated in 17 states (of the 33 states that reported such information to the federal government). The states with the most Magnet schools were California (473), Illinois (350), North Carolina (153) and Missouri (95). (Source: National Center for Education Statistics). By the 2001-02 school year, more than 3,100 Magnet schools operated in America.

Magnet schools are mainly an urban phenomenon. According to U.S. Department of Education, more than half of the large urban school districts have Magnet school programs as compared to only 10% of suburban districts.

There are Magnet schools at the elementary school, middle school, and high school levels and they occasionally combine grades in certain classes.

While Magnet schools are more racially balanced than their traditional counterparts, other imbalances may develop. Students who attend Magnet schools are less likely to have the same social economic status (SES) mix that the regular public schools have. For instance, fewer students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs. Students in a Magnet school will more likely live in two-parent households with employed parents who have college or graduate degrees, compared to students who don’t attend Magnet schools. These findings apply to the students regardless of their race.

A study in school districts in three communities – St. Louis, Missouri; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Nashville, Tennessee – has found that for two of the schools (Cincinnati and Nashville), the Magnet schools did not contain a higher percentage of black students enrolled than other public schools in the same school district. From this study, it’s not clear what admissions process was used for enrollment purposes.

While students with low SES may be underrepresented in Magnet schools, a study in collaboration between the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights and Vanderbilt University shows that when low SES students do attend Magnet schools, they achieve better academically than like students who remain at regular public schools. Evidence in St. Louis suggests that low SES students in Magnet schools are more likely to complete high school than their counterparts in non-Magnet schools.

But what these results indicate is that generally a focus on increasing the diversity as the core purpose of a Magnet school has been moved more so to academic achievement. Students attending Magnet schools achieve greater academically than students who attend traditional schools in the same school district.

Districts finance Magnet schools the same way they finance other public schools. However, on the average, Magnet schools spend about $200 more per student than non-Magnet schools. Some Magnet schools receive state desegregation funds. Federal funding under the Magnet schools Assistance Program (MSAP) is also available. MSAP provides two-year grants to Magnet programs that are implemented to promote desegregation.

Pros and Cons of Magnet schools

Supporters of Magnet schools focus on the success Magnet schools have made drawing students out of their assigned school zones, about the level of academic achievement enjoyed by Magnet schools, about how Magnet schools provide families more choice within the public school system, and about the trickle down effect you’ll find with Magnet schools within the public school system.

There’s no doubt that many Magnet schools have successfully encouraged families to enroll their children in school zones outside of where they live, thereby helping desegregate public education. But that’s not the only thing positive about Magnet schools.

Magnet schools have specialized programs emphasizing a consistent theme or method of teaching, facilitating students’ and teachers’ commitment to the school. This helps students at Magnet schools surpass the achievement they would have made at their zoned schools.

Magnet schools increase the choices available to parents and students in urban school districts but lets them remain in the public school system.

Proponents of Magnet schools talk about how progress made in teaching methodologies within Magnet schools are often shared with their neighboring schools so that other schools benefit from the progress made in educational methodology made in Magnet schools.

Critics of the Magnet school focus on the inequity of the Magnet school in general, how Magnet schools often “hurt” neighboring public schools by taking away their brightest students, how selection processes will often keep children out who could benefit from a Magnet school experience, the problems with student diversity that Magnet schools still have, and how Magnet schools draw resources from regular school programs.

You may find some critiques of the magnet school system: If families can be encouraged to change schools because the Magnet school is so much nicer than the zoned school, why not focus on making all schools in effect Magnet schools? Why should the Magnet schools receive extra funds to make them special programs? What about the many students who get turned away?

Another critique is that while Magnet schools may open up previous geographic segregations of neighborhoods, they encourage the segregation of students based on ability and talents. Because the best and brightest students would naturally be attracted to Magnet schools, the argument goes that their exodus leaves the public zoned school poorer for not having those smart bright students in their classes anymore. Gone are the chess clubs and the debate teams that gave those original “average” schools any chance of academic sparks

The selective admission criteria of Magnet schools often acts as a hurdle for students with failing grades or records of bad behavior or truancy who want to attend these schools. Hence, magnet schools may not really be open to all students who need them. About 1/3 of all Magnet schools use selection criteria to decide who can attend their schools.

Critics will point out that low-income, English-as-a-second language and special education students can be under-represented in Magnets. Finally, a common critique about Magnet schools is that even if they work, does this really work for the public schools system in general? Magnet schools may be drawing scarce energy and resources away from improving neighborhood schools.

If you’ll notice, many of these criticisms have to do with philosophical aspects of Magnet schools and do not focus on the academic performance or educational experience that students have in Magnet schools. That’s because generally speaking, families that are involved with Magnet schools are very happy with their experiences.

Is a Magnet school right for your Family?

This all really depends on the following factors:

  • Are you interested in a different curriculum or instructional approach than what your children would have with their zoned public school?
  • Do you feel your children have needs that would be better met with a Magnet school then their zoned public school?
  • How do you feel about sending your children to a school outside of your normal school zone? On that note, how well do you think your child will adjust to a new school?
  • How do you feel about student diversity?
  • How do you feel about student achievement?

The decision to enroll your child into a Magnet school is not a fast and easy one. Probably the best way to make this decision is to prioritize your goals and focus on them that way. What are your goals? Are they to:

  • Place my child in a more racially or ethnically diverse student population?
  • Place my child in a school where academic progress should surpass what he or she would do at their assigned school?
  • Place my school in a school environment with a specific type of curriculum or teaching methodology?

Once you have decided why you want your child in a Magnet school program, it should be easier for you to look at individual Magnet schools and decide which one, if any, are right for your family.

Getting into a Magnet school

If you have decided that you want to your child in a Magnet school, then the first thing you should be concerned about is getting your child enrolled into that Magnet school. Getting enrolled into a Magnet school is not as easy as we’d all like for it to be.

Getting admitted into a Magnet school usually occurs one of the following ways:

  • admissions criteria
  • first-come, first-serve applications
  • lotteries
  • percentage set-asides for neighborhood residents

What the percentage set-asides means is that for those living in a Magnet school’s original zone, those students may be allowed to attend the Magnet school without having to participate in one of the other ways to get into the school. Sometimes Magnet schools use admissions criteria to weigh the admission. Race is used much less so today but social economic status and children who are deemed at risk academically may often get pushed to the front of the line, so to speak.

If you want to get into a Magnet school, find out what the admissions policy is. If they make room for students who live in their zones, you’ll want to move to that zone to ensure enrollment. If enrollment is based on admission criteria, you may get a chance of convincing them of your need to be enrolled with your application. Only about a third of the schools use selection criteria.


If their policy is first-come, first-served, make sure you turn your application in as soon as possible. If the school uses a lottery system only, there is nothing you can do other than repeatedly apply each year until your child get in. If this is the case, the only advice I can give you is to apply to as many feasible Magnet schools as you can to increase your chances of enrolling your child into one of them. Most Magnet schools will give siblings preferential enrollment status if one sibling is already enrolled.


Magnets schools were first created to facilitate public school desegregation. All this is done to better balance the student population racially and ethnically by attracting students across neighborhoods. Specialized curriculums and instructional approaches became an extension of these efforts. Unfortunately, the desire to attend a Magnet school often overpasses the enrollment capacity of Magnet schools today. That leaves many students and families desiring a Magnet school experience stuck within their zoned public schools.

The goal of each magnet theme is to promote high achievement, cultural diversity, and choice of curriculum delivery. Magnet schools can often maintain a high standard of education because of the extra funding they receive plus their “restricted” student population. Just because Magnet schools aren’t perfect in reaching their goals doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable learning opportunities. As mentioned many times over in this article, the students desiring to attend a Magnet school can often surpass the actual head count a Magnet school can support ten times over.


There are many pros and cons to Magnet Schools. Some of these pros and cons deal with the Magnet School experience specifically and others focus on the concept of Magnet School philosophically within the public school system. Deciding whether a Magnet school is right for you depends on a number of factors and on your own goals for your children’s education. The best thing to do is to work out what you want out of a school and find out what Magnet schools can do for your family. Magnet schools don’t come in a “one size fits all” shape. Understanding what Magnet schools are is the first step to deciding whether they make sense for your family.


In writing this article, statistics and information was used from various online sites. The following sites provided valuable resources to this article: