During the 1960s and 1970s, federal consent decrees forced public school systems to implement acceptable desegregation plans. Some school systems chose the controversial practice of busing, in which students from predominantly black school districts would be transported, often involuntarily, to more affluent white school districts in order to satisfy the terms of the federal desegregation orders. Other school systems, however, took a different approach, in the form of so-called magnet schools which allowed individual students of both races to attend school in an alternative district.
Because these early magnet schools politically satisfied the federal desegregation orders, they often received additional funding to make them even more appealing to parents and prospective students. Many of the first magnet schools offered alternative curricula and accelerated programs not available in regular elementary or middle schools. The idea was to draw gifted students to the alternative school like a magnet, hence the name magnet schools.
As the popularity of magnet schools grew, several changes took place. The unpopularity of forced busing caused school systems to find other ways of desegregation, including a complete overhaul of the school districting methodology. The focus of many magnet schools also shifted from gifted programs to a more diverse selection of alternative programs, such as creative arts, math/science courses or vocational training. Entry into the magnet school program also became more competitive in recent years.
While racial and social economic diversity are still emphasized in magnet schools, many programs are geared towards students with similar interests and backgrounds. Students in a performing arts program spend many years together, for example, and often form strong interpersonal bonds. This can lead to a different form of social segregation if students at magnet schools are not encouraged to interact with those participating in other programs.
Critics of magnet school programs argue that the neighboring schools often suffer academically because their best and brightest students tend to transfer to magnet schools with more challenging programs. A number of lower income students or students with poor attendance or disciplinary records can also find it difficult to be accepted into magnet school programs, even with acceptable academic track records. Special education and immigrant students with limited English language skills are also less to be accepted into magnet school programs.
Many parents and students are quite satisfied with the level of education received at magnet schools. Studies do indicate that a student enrolled at a magnet school is more likely to graduate from high school than other students enrolled in "regular" schools. However, some educators are concerned that magnet schools may draw too much funding and resources from mainstream school districts already overworked and underfunded. The future seems to support a continued growth of magnet school programs, but the debate still continues over their overall effectiveness.