What Is A Magnet School?

What Is A Magnet School?
What is a Magnet School? Read about how magnet schools differ and work when compared to other public schools.

This article will help you better understand what magnet schools are and their role in your family’s education. We’ll first introduce the concept of a magnet school. Then we’ll go over the function of magnet schools in detail and how those functions have changed over the years. After that, we’ll share some basic facts about magnet schools as well as go over the pros and cons of magnet schools. Finally, we’ll end the article by discussing whether a magnet school is right for your family and how to increase your chances of getting your child into a magnet school.

What is a Magnet School?

Unlike charter or private schools, a magnet school is part of the local public school system. At regular public schools, students are generally zoned into their schools based on their home location - students go to the nearest school where they live. However, this may not always be true since boundaries can seem arbitrary, and in some smaller towns, schools are not zoned at all. But, magnet schools exist outside of zoned school boundaries. Whereas private schools are separate from local public school districts, and charter schools are public schools with private oversight, magnet schools remain part of the public school system and operate under the same administration and school board.

This video explains how magnet schools differ from charter schools.

According to the Magnet Schools of America, the unique quality of a magnet school is that they usually have a special curricular focus. Common themes include STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), the arts, and vocational or career paths. There are many, many possible themes, however. The important point is that magnet schools are schools of choice – children are enrolled based on their interest in the school’s theme, not on where they live. While schools may have a general theme, students still study various subjects. Each subject is aligned to local, state, or national learning standards (i.e. Common Core), but each subject is taught within the school’s theme. More often than not, magnet schools involve hands-on learning that is inquiry and performance-based.

Another distinguishing characteristic of magnet schools is that they usually have alternative or otherwise compelling modes of instruction. For example, there are many Montessori magnet schools throughout the country. A Montessori school is based on a model of education that views children as naturally curious and eager to learn. Montessori schools build on that model to create learning environments in which children are active members of the educational process. It is a unique approach to learning, like those found in Montessori schools, that are often found in magnet schools.

Magnet schools also differ from other public schools in that they receive additional funding to enable them to spend more money on their students, supplies, teachers, and educational programs. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education earmarked nearly $90 million in special grants to magnet schools throughout the country to increase access to their programs by local families. By increasing school choice, parents can send their children to a school with a unique educational philosophy or focus. Additionally, the funding is intended to attract a more diverse student body to magnet schools.

History of Magnet Schools

Magnet schools began in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a tool to further academic desegregation in large urban school districts. Magnets were intended to attract students from across different school zones. To accomplish this, magnet schools had to do two things. First, they had to open their enrollment to students outside their traditional school zones. Second, they had to provide an environment or experience that would attract students and families from other school zones. By encouraging enrollment rather than forcing enrollment, the hope was that families would voluntarily desegregate their children in lieu of being forcibly desegregated through busing.

This video describes how magnet schools came into existence and how magnet schools benefit students.

Current Role of Magnet schools

Many magnet schools still help increase diversity within the public school system. But over the last 20 years, some magnet schools have taken on a more competitive role in education because they can only admit 10-20 percent of the students that apply to their school. Therefore, magnet schools' current role is to promote academic opportunity and excellence beyond that offered at their regular public school counterparts. Magnet schools often attract “gifted” students who score well on tests and receive good grades. Approximately one-third of all magnet schools use academic performance as selection criteria to decide who will be invited to enroll for that year.

Magnet schools have three distinguishing characteristics:

  • Distinctive curriculum and/or instructional approach.
  • A diverse student body that represents various neighborhood attendance zones.
  • Represent diversity as an explicit purpose.

Magnet school Facts

As discussed above, magnets offer special curricula, such as STEM, performing arts programs, or special instructional approaches, such as academic achievement, through the application of Gardner's learning styles or the Montessori style of education. Because of these unique qualities, enrollment in magnet schools has steadily increased over the years.

Additionally, the number of magnet schools has increased rapidly since federal court rulings accepted magnet programs as a method of desegregation in the mid-1970s. Between 1982 and 1991, the number of individual schools offering magnet programs nearly doubled, and the number of students enrolling in these programs almost tripled. By the 1991-92 school year, more than 1.2 million students were enrolled in magnet schools in 230 districts. In the 1999-2000 school year, 1,372 magnet schools operated in 17 of the 33 states that reported such information to the federal government. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that as of 2011, 2,722 magnet schools were in operation in the United States. The states with the most magnet schools are Michigan (464), Florida (414), California (282), and Texas (219).

Magnet schools are mainly an urban phenomenon. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than half of large urban school districts have magnet school programs compared to only 10% of suburban districts. Whether they are located in urban or rural areas, however, there are magnet schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Some magnet schools will occasionally combine grades in certain classes.

While magnet schools are more racially balanced than their traditional counterparts, other imbalances may develop. Magnet schools are less likely to have the same socioeconomic status (SES) mix as regular public schools. For instance, fewer magnet school 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 when compared to students who don’t attend magnet schools. These findings apply to students regardless of their race.

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 attend magnet schools, they achieve better academically than those who remain at regular public schools. Evidence from magnet schools in St. Louis suggests that low SES students in regular schools are more likely to complete high school than their counterparts in non-magnet schools. But these results indicate that, in general, the focus on increasing diversity as the core purpose of a magnet school has been replaced by the purpose of improving academic achievement. Generally, magnet school students achieve greater academic success than traditional schools in the same school district.

Districts finance magnet schools the same way they finance other public schools. However, on average, magnet schools spend about $200 more per student than non-magnet schools. Some magnet schools receive state desegregation funds as well. 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

There’s no doubt that many magnet schools have successfully encouraged families to enroll their children in school zones outside of where they live, helping desegregate public education. But that’s not the only positive thing about magnet schools. Supporters also take pride in the academic achievement enjoyed by 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. The fact that magnet schools offer families a choice about their child’s education is also seen as a primary advantage. This increased competition, supporters argue, actually benefits children in all schools, magnet or otherwise, because public schools seek to improve their academic programs to keep students in their schools.

Critics of magnet schools focus on the inequity of the magnet school in general, particularly on how magnet schools often “hurt” neighboring public schools by taking away their brightest students. Because the best and brightest students would naturally be attracted to magnet schools, the argument goes that their exodus leaves the public-zoned school academically disadvantaged. Some are also quick to point out how selection processes often keep children out who could benefit from a magnet school experience. Low-income, non-native English-speaking students and students with special needs can be underrepresented in magnet schools. The selective admission criteria of magnet schools often act 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 be open to all students who need them. Critics also maintain that magnet schools draw resources from regular school programs and that magnets unfairly receive extra funds to operate.

Many of the above criticisms concern the philosophical aspects of magnet schools. They do not focus on student's academic performance or educational experience in magnet schools. That’s because, generally speaking, families involved with magnet schools are very happy with their experiences.

Is a Magnet School Right for Your Family?

This all 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 better met with a magnet school than 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. What are your goals? Are they to:

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

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

Getting into a Magnet school

If you have decided that a magnet school is right for your child, you first need to research the enrollment criteria for that school. Unfortunately, enrolling in a magnet school is not necessarily easy.

Admission to a magnet school is usually based on one of the following factors:

  • Admissions criteria, such as standardized test scores
  • First-come, first-serve applications
  • Lotteries
  • Percentage set-asides for neighborhood residents

The percentage set-asides means that for those living in a magnet school’s original zone, 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 socioeconomic status and children who are deemed academically at-risk may often get pushed to the back of the line, so to speak.

If you want your child 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 may want to move to that zone to ensure enrollment. If enrollment is based on admission criteria, you may get a chance to convince the school’s administration of your child’s need to be enrolled by the information you include on your child’s application.

If the magnet school’s policy is to enroll students on a first-come, first-served basis, ensure you turn your child’s application in as soon as possible. If the school uses a lottery system only, you can do nothing other than repeatedly apply each year until your child gets in. If this is the case, consider applying to several magnet schools to increase the chances of enrolling your child in one of them. Most magnet schools will give siblings preferential enrollment status if one sibling is already enrolled.


Magnet schools were first created to facilitate public school desegregation. All this is done to achieve a better racial and ethnic balance in the student population by attracting students from various neighborhoods. Specialized curriculums and instructional approaches became an extension of these efforts. Unfortunately, the desire to attend a magnet school often exceeds the enrollment capacity of magnet schools today. Many students and families desire 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 and the academic prowess of their “restricted” student population. Just because magnet schools aren’t perfect in reaching their goals doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable learning opportunities.

There are many pros and cons to magnet schools. Some of these pros and cons deal with specific magnet school experiences, and others focus on the theoretical or philosophical concept of magnet schools. Deciding whether a magnet school is right for you depends on several factors and your goals for your child’s education. The best thing to do is to identify what you want from a school and find out what magnet schools can do for your family. Magnet schools don’t come in a “one size fits all” form. Understanding what magnet schools are is the first step to deciding whether they make sense for your family.

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