Magnet Schools and Other Means of Desegregation

Marcy Crouch
Poverty & Prejudice: Our Schools Our Children
June 4, 1999


Equality is one of the founding ideologies of America, yet actually putting equality into practice does not seem to be as popular as the support for the idea. "Equal opportunity" has been a theme of the latter half of the 1900s and continues to be a notion of struggle because equal opportunity does not necessarily constitute equal results. Legally, black Americans today have voting rights and equal access to public accommodations, with discrimination in housing, employment and education being found illegal (Rossell, 2). Yet the wealth disparity in America is certainly no where near equal and the black citizens are often found to be the ones with the lowest social, economic and educational status. Since education is seen as the means to upward mobility there have been great movements over the past fifty years to try and create equality in the classroom.

The method of choice has been attempts to desegregate our classrooms and schools. However, the means to educational desegregation are not so cut and dry because of the existence of housing segregation. Methods such as freedom of choice plans and "forced busing" have both been striving to desegregate American schools, but neither has withheld the test of time. However, one program has proven to be successful at accomplishing enduring desegregation and that is the magnet school systems. To understand the true struggles of school desegregation, one must acknowledge the history of segregation as an ingrained part of the American culture. While the freedom of choice plan allowed old biases to remain in the school system and "forced busing" met adamant resistance because it provided no incentives for the white students to desegregate, the magnet school program provides benefits for both white and minority students and should be looked to as the means to desegregating the American schools.


"No single decision has had more moral force than Brown; few struggles have been morally more significant than the one for racial integration of American life" (Rossell, 2). This quote by 3. Harvie Wilkinson demonstrates the significance of racial integration on the American culture. One of the most influential decisions in the struggle for racial equality was the 1954 case of Brown vs. Board of Education. This case was a consolidated opinion from cases that came to the Supreme Court from Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia, and Delaware. The Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated school systems were "inherently unequal" and that any state laws from which segregation stems must be struck down as unconstitutional (Orfield 1983, 1). Prior to this decision, black students had been denied admission to schools attended by white children under laws that permitted or required racial segregation (Mills, 46). Following this ruling, the eleven states of the South and the six border states, which had previously been segregated by law, began a period of gradual change into desegregation (Orfield 1983, 1). Equal protection under the laws of the fourteenth amendment were allegedly not being upheld because of this segregation. The institution of the fourteenth amendment in 1868 which states that "No state shall.. .deny...the equal protection of the laws" (Mills, 20) came at a time when the conditions in the South were particularly disturbing. White students were receiving far superior education, largely by private groups, while the blacks were experiencing very little education which left most of the race illiterate (Mills, 47). In some states the law still forbid the education of blacks (Mills, 47). The notion of free common schools, a movement that was being supported by general taxation, had not yet transpired (Mills, 47).

The Supreme Court continued to implement notions of desegregation through their rulings on multiple cases brought before them. Green v. County School Board of New Kent County case of 1968 resulted in rural school districts of the South being forced into desegregation plans to terminate racially identifiable schools which are labeled such when a school is more than 20 percentage points different from that of the district. For example, if a school is 50 percent minority and 50 percent white a racially identifiable school is one where there is less than 30 percent minority or more than 70 percent minority. In 1%9, gradualism was denounced and all southern districts were forced to correct violations immediately in the ruling of Alexander v. Holmes. Legally forced segregation became even more pertinent when in 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that busing could be used as a mode of desegregation in the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (Orfield 1983, 1).

The Supreme Court rulings did have an effect on the Southern schools which reported a significant decline in segregation between the years of 19681980, particularly for black students attending schools that were severely segregated with 90 to 100 percent minority (Orfield 1983, 3). Desegregation was, however, no where near complete by 1980 where one third of black students still attended predominantly minority schools and the desegregation process began to slow (Orfield 1983, 3).

The movement of desegregation crept north and in 1973 the Supreme Court ruled that if schools were being kept racially segregation because of official actions then the entire district could be deemed segregation and action to remedy this could be forced upon the school.


As the rulings of the Supreme Court started forcing the southern and border states to desegregate their schools, the northern states were not regulated as closely and therefore their schools remained segregated. During the 1970s the northern schools, which were already the most segregated schools in the nation, became even more segregated (Orfield 1982, 2). The 1980-81 school year saw almost half of the black students in the North enrolled in schools which were 90 to 100 percent minority. The South had fewer than one quarter of their black students enrolled in such schools (Orfield 1982, 3). The greater progress in the South is attributed to the enforcement by the federal courts and federal government that was instituted solely in the South and the border states. The decisions in the Alexander v. Holmes and Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg cases had a forceful impact on the southern states because these rulings made immediate desegregation mandatory and implemented the use of busing if that was the only way to accomplish their goals. These decisions impacted hundreds of districts and dramatically decreased the segregation of southern schools. The North and the West did not receive such strict guidelines from the Supreme Court resulting in the much slower progress towards desegregation (Orfield 1982, 3).

In 1980 the most segregated state for black students was Illinois (Orfield 1982, 5). Schools that were 90-100 percent minority held 68 percent of the black students in the state (Orfield 1982,6). Following Illinois is New York with 56 percent, Michigan with 51 percent, New Jersey with 50 percent, Pennsylvania with 49 percent, Missouri with 44 percent and California with 41 percent (Orfield 1982,6). In comparison, the South was led by Louisiana and Mississippi which only had 37 percent of their black students in schools with 90-100 percent minority enrollment (Orfield 1982,6). So while the South was making important strides towards desegregation, the North was not making any Significant moves in the same direction and actually regressed towards segregation.

































































































The above tables, taken from Gary Orfield's "Desegregation of Black and Hispanic Students from 1968-1980" (p.11), demonstrate the significant differences between the Northeast and the other regions of the country. From 1968, when the Supreme Court forced immediate desegregation in the South and border states, until 1980 the most drastic numbers can be seen in the second table. The percentage of black students attending schools containing 90-100 percent minority students had decreased in the South by 54.8 percentage points. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the programs at reducing the amount of schools which would be labeled segregated, exceeding the cut off line of 90 percent minority. The 54.8 decrease is even more impacting when compared to the U.S. total of 31.1 percent decrease. However, the Northeast did not show any signs of desegregation and, like mentioned above, they actually regressed with an increase of 6 percent of black students in segregated schools. The first table shows similar patterns of southern progress when comparing the amount of blacks in schools that are more than half minority. The southern states surpassed the mean segregation reduction of the United States by 10.1 percentage points as their number of black students decreased by 23.8 percent. Once again, because of lack of federal regulated implementation of desegregation programs, the Northeast regressed and the number of black students in 50 percent minority schools increased by 13.1 percent. In both tables the Northeast is the only region in the United States that showed this regression back to segregation.


Now that it is clear that federal regulated desegregation programs are most likely to provide results, the question becomes what sort of school desegregation should be implemented. Should the concerns of the white taxpayers be as important as the dire need for schools to be integrated?

One method that many of the southern school districts adopted after the 1954 amendment were several forms of choice plans. There were three forms of choice plans: pupil-placement laws, freedom-of-choice plans and "incremental desegregation" plans (Rossell, 4). These plans maintained separate schools, however the blacks were allowed to transfer to the white schools (Orfield 1983, 1).

The pupil-placement plan had students initially enrolled in schools according to their race and then allowed them to transfer out on an individual basis because of "nonracial" factors. These programs produced little progress towards desegregation and were subsequently found unconstitutional because the initial placing was done by race (Rossell, 4).

The freedom-of choice plans were next to be widely implemented. Each student was given a choice at the beginning of the year as to what school they wanted to attend, regardless of race. The only means of denying enrollment was because of overcrowding, yet the numbers of blacks enrolled in white school was still insignificant. Possible explanations for the little numbers of black students attending the predominantly white schools is that the black students who applied for enrollment were either denied because of overcrowding or were "encouraged" by parents of the white school from attending their school (Rossell, 5). By l%5 all black schools were still being attended by about 94 percent of the total number of black students in the area (Rossell, 5).


Following the failure of freedom-of-choice plans the Supreme Court ruled to institute more severe criteria for desegregating schools. The Green v. County School Board of New Kent ruling marks the transition from "nondiscrimination remedies" to "affirmative action" solutions (Rossell, 6). In an effort to desegregate the schools, busing and other forms of forced desegregation were implemented. Busing was seen as a necessary remedy to the segregated schooling system. The Supreme Court did require that busing was to be limited by time and distance allowing the specifics to be determined by different rulings in court cases. Transportation ended up ranging depending on the city from 45 minutes on the bus each way to no more that two and a half hours on the bus per day (Rossell, 9).

Much controversy followed the forced busing, leading to protest demonstrations and white flight. Many opponents of busing have tried to justify their objections on nonracial grounds by claiming that busing harms education, causes great inconvenience to students and parents, and violates the integrity of neighborhoods (Rossell, 15). Parents fear busing even though it is two times safer than walking to school and most children enjoy the actual experience of riding the bus. The fear of the parents stems from sending their child to an unknown school where they may be harassed and the parents have no political control. They are also bothered by the notion of sending their child on a long bus ride to a school that offers no benefits over their own neighborhood school that is just around the corner (Mazarella, 3).

White flight is one of the most serious problems facing a school district that is attempting to desegregate its classrooms. White flight is most often classified by the self-interest characteristics of social class and academic achievement of the students at the minority school, busing distance, and school characteristics (Rossell, 19). When parents found out that their children were going to be bused to a school in a black neighborhood they would simply leave the school system if they had the mobility to do so. Statistics show that about 55 percent of white students who were assigned to schools historically composed of 90-100 percent minorities did not show up on the first day of classes. Of those reassigned to 80-89 percent minority schools 47 percent did not show up and 43 percent reassigned to 50-79 percent were absent comprising a total of 50 percent of reassigned white students not showing up to their assigned minority school (Rossell, 16). Although in principle most whites support desegregation, they adamantly opposed the practice of forced busing (Rossell, 13).


The above chart (Rossell, 67) demonstrates the drastic drop in white enrollment resulting from the implementation of mandatory rather than voluntary desegregation plans. The significant effects of white flight can be observed through the percent of change of white enrollment in the desegregation year. Voluntary programs lost only between 5 and 6 percent of their white students while the mandatory programs saw nearly 13 percent of their white students leave.

There are two important factors for why whites are so opposed to forced busing and those include their own self- interest and racist beliefs. The self-interest of the parents of children who were assigned to minority school was that they saw no benefits to the process. Their children were now going to spend between one to two hours on a bus to attend a school in an area that was considered foreign and potentially dangerous to the white residents. The schools were also not viewed as comparable in the levels of academics, athletics and other extra curricular activities. In short the parents gained nothing by sending their children across town to these black schools and were not willing to sacrifice their own comforts in order to establish a desegregated school system. The self-interest of convenience for the white students and parents is validated by the finding that those white students allowed to stay at their own neighborhood school which was to be racially balanced in the same manner as the formerly black schools, only 21 percent of the students were not in attendance (Rossell, 16). This 21 percent may be explained by the racist beliefs of the white people. Some notions are that they resent the equitable distribution of scarce resources, they think the teachers in desegregated schools will have lower expectations, and they do to welcome the new set of peers to whom their children will be exposed (Jencks, 108).


With white parents opposed to desegregation and the school system having to institute entirely new attendance policies for their schools, one would hope that the black students that attend desegregated schools would be benefiting greatly from their education. Research has not found this to be entirely true.

School desegregation gives black students access to resources that their previous schools lacked such as science laboratories, better teacher to student ratios, more educated and experienced teachers and other similar aspects. However, studies by James Coleman and Christopher Jencks have shown that school effects do not matter. Instead they found that family background, especially the education, occupation and income of the parents (or parent) proved to be the most significant factor to a child's success at school (Olzak, 5-25-99). Since it would be impossible to give children a new family background, this data seems to show that busing them to "better" white schools would not improve their future success.

However, there is also data which includes a study of minority siblings where one child is bussed and the other remains at the neighborhood school, therefore controlling for the family background variable. This study found that the sibling that was bussed into a white neighborhood school had a decreased drop-out rate and an increased likelihood to attend college, but they also suffered from lower self-esteem (Olzak, 5-2-99).

Advocates of desegregation argue that blacks will benefit because they will be put in contact with classmates who have command of the standard vocabulary which often times the black students do not. Critics say that these new peers will not necessarily be beneficial to the black students and that it will depend on the type of relationship they develop. If the two groups become hostile or violent towards each other then the black students will not benefit from this interaction (Jencks, 98).

Desegregation supporters also claim that teachers in white schools expect more out of black students and that they will benefit from this belief of their potential for achievement. However, this had not yet been proved. Black students in desegregated schools are also said to feel that they have a chance to make it in larger society and this may make him work harder and learn more. Once again this depends on the relationship with the white teachers and students who, if found to be antagonizing, could have the opposite effect.

Rossell cites research showing that there is a positive effect of white students on

minority students. Educational and social benefits are related to the number of whites in a minority school with an almost linear relationship between white students numbers in a minority school and the greater achievements gained by black children (Rossell, 31).


The failure of the freedom-of-choice program and the resistance to white flight resulting from the forced busing leads one to look for a desegregation plan that would be beneficial to both minority and white students. The pattern from 198~1986 have shown a regression towards more segregation in schools and this problem needs to be immediately combated so that it does not become necessary to start again from square one (Orfield 1989, 9). The implementation of magnet schools may be that solution. Christine H. Rossell thoroughly analyzes the debate between magnet schools or forced busing in her book, The Carrot or the Stick. The implementation of the magnet-voluntary programs in the 197Os gave whites an incentive to transfer to other schools because they were able to offer specialized programs and curriculum that their own neighborhood school did not offer. Therefore it was in the self-interest of the parents to send their children to a school in a minority neighborhood because of the better opportunities. The way that a magnet school program would work is that most or all of the minority schools that need to be desegregated would be chosen to be a magnet school site. Each school would have a different theme or focus and would have extra money spent on establishing a strong program and attract more white students (Rossell, 20). Magnet schools have been court approved to achieve desegregation. After the court found the school board of Buffalo, New York, guilty 6f intentional segregation in Arthur v. Nyquist the court approved a plan that located magnet schools in black neighborhoods (Rossell, 24).

Of the two types of magnet schools, mandatory and voluntary, the mandatory-magnet seems to be of more controversy even though it does succeed in achieving racial integration. Under a mandatory-magnet program children are forced to attend the school that they are assigned to determined by their race and residence. Parents do not have a choice as to which school their children are assigned to, but they do have the option of entering a lottery system to attend one of the magnet schools. These magnet schools are seen as educational options to appease the parents, not as desegregation tools (Rossell, 43). These schools have been found to be very effective in achieving racial balance because the alternative to a magnet school is a less desirable desegregated school. While white flight is still seen in the non-magnet schools, like when this program was implemented in Boston, the magnet schools are very desirable and therefore successful at maintaining their white student enrollment.

The other form of magnet schooling is the voluntary-magnet plan. Under these circumstances, initial racial balance may not be achieved as quickly because some parents may choose to continue the enrollment of their child in their neighborhood school rather than sending them to a magnet school. The voluntary form of magnet schools depends on providing the parents and students with incentives to attend a desegregated school. Most desegregation is attained by voluntary white transfers into well equipped magnet schools in minority areas or by minority enrollment in white school either by attending a magnet school or by the majority-to-minority transfers (Rossell, 42). Parents weigh the costs and benefits when determining in which school they want to enroll their children. The benefits of the voluntary plan is that parents have the option of their own school or a magnet school and are therefore the school district is less likely to experience white flight which is beneficial towards the goal of interracial exposure. Although the mandatory plans have a more immediate effect of desegregation, it has been found that they also tend to resegregate more quickly than do the voluntary programs (Rossell, 108).

Although the voluntary-magnet programs are not backed up by mandatory means, they are expected to succeed in desegregation by voluntary means. School districts that have failed in racial balance because of white flight and other forms of white resistance have embraced the voluntary program. East Boston, for example, had to terminate its "forced busing" policy because the resisting parents threatened to blow up the bridge that connecting it to Boston which would have paralyzed the entire city (Rossell, 47). A voluntary magnet program was implemented and three magnet schools were placed in East Boston. The city reached desegregation goals accomplished solely through voluntary means (Rossell, 47).

Douglas Albrigh Archibald conducted an in-depth study of the magnet school program in Milwakee, Wisconsin. He wanted to analyze how choice in education operates in practice. At the time of his study Milwakee was becoming increasingly black as those whites who could afford to were moving from the city to the suburbs. The inner city public schools consisted of 51 percent black students who were often products of low-income, jobless parents and often times female headed households. In stark contrast the suburbs only contained one half of one percent of blacks. The racial isolation of the inner city created an educational dilemma and magnet schools were implemented to solve the educational, racial and political problems for the big city district (Archibald, 84). As Senator John Glenn so eloquently stated, "The goal is to provide schools with superior education-- education so attractive to all racial groups that integration will occur naturally, rather than as a result of a government requirement" (Archibald, 95). The more acceptable form of integration compared to "forced busing" there were 36 magnet schools within the school district which included 115 schools. There were three types of magnet schools distinguished by their instructional methods (how they teach), their content (what they teach), and their students (who they teach) (Archibald, 112). found that each magnet school, which advertised and recruited for itself, did in fact offer genuine specializations. He also concluded that the voluntary transfers were sufficient to meet desegregation mandates (Archibald, 154).


Although there is mixed data in regard to whether or not minority students benefit from attending desegregated schools, it is necessary to institute desegregation practices at the young age of school children so that they will be less prone to racial bias that come from ignorance and not being exposed to other ethnicities. The magnet school system is so beneficial because it provides incentives for both white and minority students because, unlike "forced busing", something is to be gained from enrolling in a school across town. Whether the focus be performing arts or math and science, magnet schools provide a superior education than traditional schools in their respective fields. The serious detrimental act to desegregation efforts of white flight can be combated and voluntary desegregation can be encouraged by locating the most affluent magnet schools, the highest demand programs with the highest budget, into minority neighborhoods (Rossell, 20). This would also prohibit a well-equipped magnet school from attaining too elite of a status. Archibald and Rossell both found voluntary-magnet programs to be successful at reaching racial integration goals and maintaining those proportions. As more cities throughout the United States implement magnet programs not only will students of all races benefit from superior educational opportunities, they will also experience voluntary racial integration which will hopefully provide a solid foundation of open-mindedness for living in this multi-racial country.


Archibald, Douglas Albrigh. "Magnet Schools, Voluntary Desegregation, and Public Choice Theory: Limits and Possibilities in a Big City School System". University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1988.

Cottle, Thomas J. Busing. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.

Jencks, Christopher. Inequality. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1972.

Mazzarella, Jo Ann. Making Your Busing Plan Work: A Guide to Desegregation. Burlingame, CA: Association of California School Administrators, 1977.

Mills, Nicolaus. Busing U.S.A. New York and London: Teachers College Press, 1979. Olzak, Susan. Urban Underclass lecture, May 25, 1999.

Orfield, Gary. Desegregation of Blacks and Hispanic Students From 1968 to 1980. Washington D.C.: Joint Center for Political Science, 1982.

Orfield, Gary. Public School Desegregation in the United States, 1968-1980. Washington

D.C.: Joint Center for Political Science, 1983.

Orfield, Gary. Status of School Desegregation ]968-1986. NSBA Council of Urban Boards of Education, 1989.

Rossell, Christine H. The Carrot or the Stick. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Whites in Desegregated Schools. Northwestern University: Center for Equal Education, 1976.

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