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Magnet Schools: What Are They?

Magnet schools came into being at the end of the 1960s and early in the 1970s as an alternative to busing children to school during the desegregation movement. The intent was to combine various cultural and ethnic groups from one area together in one school. This purpose has since changed. While concept of promoting choice in public education still exists, magnet groups now promote different approaches to education. There are about 4,000 magnet schools across the U.S., according to Magnet Schools of America.


What is a Magnet School?

Magnet schools exist at the elementary, middle and high school levels, and are distinguished by a particular focus or philosophy. These institutions offer specialized curriculum and instruction to help attract students. Some characteristics include:

  • Concentration on a specific educational field such as computers, mathematics, medicine or a foreign language
  • A specific philosophical approach e.g. Paideia or Montessori
  • Meant to attract highly academic or talented students
  • Aimed at increasing diversity in schools

Students in magnet schools performed better than their counterparts at public, private, religious and even charter schools, according to the American Magnet Schools.


Magnets schools are part of local districts, and receive funding from state and federal grants, local school boards, and corporations. They are similar to charter schools, but are different because they are controlled by the same board as other public schools in the district. Districts receive additional funding to expand existing magnet programs or create new ones in order to promote diversity in schools and so families have more options when choosing a school. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education allocated more than $89 million to maintain magnet schools in multiple states.

Some schools require entrance exams or use tests and grades to determine eligibility, but many rely on a computerized lottery system. The key is the ability for students to choose a school based on their area of interest. This power to choose differs from standard public schools, which use a student’s geographic location to determine where they attend.

Despite the positives, some critics say magnet schools pull funding and the brightest students away from public schools. Additionally, because of the selection process and lottery, a student’s chance of getting in is not guaranteed.


Magnet schools came into existence to give students and their families more choices in public education. Since the 1970s, the number has increased with variations on the original concept.

Photo: A teacher prepares her classroom for the first day of school. Credit: Bart Everson/Flickr

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Mary Brown

Mary Brown

Mary Brown has enjoyed writing about education and finance related topics, such as scholarships, student loans, college, vocational degree choices, and adult education since the early 2000's. She also writes about school budgets, accreditation and fundraising.

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