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Magnet Schools and Metropolitan Civil Rights Planning: A Strategy to Revitalize and Stabilize Distressed Communities

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Elementary students working on a tablet.

In the United States, both neighborhoods and schools have grown increasingly segregated since the late 1980s, as federal supports for desegregation have been eliminated by the courts and Congress. The harms of racial segregation are well established: Many studies confirm that segregated schools for minoritized students produced worsened academic, economic, health, and criminal justice outcomes over the short and long term.

By contrast, a substantial body of research establishes that students of all races benefit from attending diverse schools. These benefits include increased academic outcomes and reduced prejudice and stereotyping. Despite this evidence, the tools for achieving greater integration have been limited by courts and legislatures in the past few decades, and new approaches to achieve integration are needed.

One tool that could be leveraged more fully to create high-quality, integrated educational environments is the use of magnet schools. Well-designed magnet schools can support desegregation and improve student learning as they create innovative education models and accommodate geographically dispersed families to produce a racially and economically integrated student body. This is especially true for “whole school” magnets without selective admissions, in which all students fully participate in the school’s specialized program (as opposed to magnet programs that serve only a portion of a school’s student body).

Whole school magnets, if operated effectively, can halt or reverse school resegregation in areas experiencing demographic pressures or concentrations of poverty, contributing to neighborhood stability and revitalization. Quality school options are a major determinant of family housing choices. Magnet schools afford policymakers the opportunity to significantly improve schools in areas of concentrated poverty and racially segregated communities—attracting middle-class families to those areas and producing greater residential integration.

 
Whole school magnets, if operated effectively, can halt or reverse school resegregation in areas experiencing demographic pressures or concentrations of poverty, contributing to neighborhood stability and revitalization.
 

This report presents a policy proposal for a new, federally coordinated approach to magnet school development, conducted under the framework of the Fair Housing Act’s mandate to affirmatively further fair housing. This proposal envisions an interagency effort conducted by both the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Education, and potentially incorporating programs managed by other federal agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service’s Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. Social science research has long established the link between housing and k–12 education, and magnet schools represent a natural subject in which to pioneer interagency coordination on these two policy spheres. But federal civil rights policy, especially in recent decades, has often addressed schools and housing in separate silos.

The use of magnet schools as a housing policy and urban revitalization tool is not new, although the approach has been little utilized by federal agencies. This proposal builds on the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, which detailed the role of school segregation in exacerbating urban inequality, concluding that “racial isolation in the urban public schools is the result principally of residential segregation and widespread employment of the ‘neighborhood school’ policy, which transfers segregation from housing to education.”

This report offers an opportunity to improve and refine several legal and policy tools for desegregating schools and communities. First, federally coordinated magnet school creation and siting policies, informed by commuter pattern analysis, offer opportunities to refine the Fair Housing Act’s fair housing mandate under a Stable Metropolitan Racial Integration framework. This classifies neighborhoods by their demographic characteristics and sets forth different Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) metrics and requirements depending on the neighborhood classification. Second, magnet schools offer a chance to add needed substance to the federal mandate that low-income housing proposals receiving certain tax credit preferences be incorporated into “concerted community revitalization plans.”

Magnet schools can be a tool for increasing community and school diversity and providing academic benefits to all students. However, achieving these outcomes requires holistic thinking about civil rights and integration across multiple policy spheres. Traditionally, k–12 school integration has remained the focus of magnet school development, but analysis suggests magnet schools present prime opportunities for neighborhood revitalization and stability as well. Schools and neighborhoods are inextricably linked, and state, local, and federal policies that reflect this reality will garner better results for both children and communities.


Magnet Schools and Metropolitan Civil Rights Planning: A Strategy to Revitalize and Stabilize Distressed Communities by Myron Orfield and Will Stancil is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Funding for this research was provided to the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota by the Ford Foundation, Kresge Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation. Core support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.