Magnets Alone Can’t Close This Divide
It’s a classic scenario—a short term solution with long-term, antithetical consequences. At least, that’s how Victor Harbison described magnet programs in urban public school settings.
As a teacher at Gage Park High School in Chicago, where 47 percent of students graduated and 97 percent lived under the poverty line in 2009, Harbison noted that attracting high-achieving, often more affluent students to built-in magnet programs within the city did nothing to address the greater issues at hand. In the U.S., the real problem deals with unequal access to quality education and resources on the basis of race, zip code, and socioeconomic status—and it begins as early as a child’s K-12 classroom instruction does.
Following 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, many efforts were made to provide accelerated learning opportunities to students from historically underserved communities, but those programs have not properly developed as the solution to dismantling centuries of systemic discrimination. For example, the remnants of redlining and residential segregation can be found today in the disparities present between urban and suburban school districts.
Acceleration programs were intended to solve issues of inequity that developed as a result of discriminatory housing practices, which were first officially addressed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Forcing people of color into “undesirable” city neighborhoods through redlining and discriminatory loan policies disenfranchised these groups from voting, resources, and access to equal resources for decades after the Reconstruction Era and into the 20th century. To believe the Act of 1968 immediately paved the road to equity, however, would be naive. 50 years after the law’s initial passage, future Vice President and then-Minnesota Senator Walter Mondale—who co-sponsored the piece of legislation—told Time Magazine, “there’s been a struggle to get the Fair Housing Act…enforce[d] at the state and local level.” He continued by saying that, even after the FHA’s passage, discrimination on behalf of real estate agencies was for too long determined on proof of a realtor’s intent to discriminate rather than the impact of racist housing and mortgage offers. It wasn’t until a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2015 that the elimination of housing discrimination was solidified.
In a 2018 New York Civil Liberties Union report, Toni Smith-Thompson wrote, “segregated housing leads to segregated schools which leads to unequal educational opportunities which leads to disparities in income which leads to segregated housing.” It’s clear that by 2015 and even now, systemic damage has been implicated for centuries, and a cyclical structure of injustice has taken form. Urban education reform that does not actively combat the historical zoning discrimination and unequal social infrastructure is not reform that will last.
It’s true that magnet schools and magnet programs within schools were introduced during the ‘60s and ‘70s as an effort to desegregate education across the United States, particularly in densely populated cities. The institution saw a significant increase in growth across primarily urban areas after the passage of federal rulings on cases like Morgan v. Kerrigan (1976), but they have since neglected the very demographics they were committed to equalizing—in exchange for quantitative credibility.
Here is one example: Blair High School, situated in the DC suburbs of Montgomery County, MD, has a student body constituted of 33.8 percent Hispanic, 23.7 percent White, 23.7 percent African American, 14.4 percent Asian, 4.3 percent bi- or multi-racial, and 0.1 percent Pacific Islander. With a total student population of 3,196, in which nearly one-third receive free or reduced lunch aid, it becomes a point of concern to outsiders, and even observant students within the system like rising Yale first-year Matthew Shu ‘24, when the two magnet programs offered by the public system seem to cater almost entirely to the white and Asian-identifying populations within the school community. In an interview with The Politic, Shu noted that in the STEM magnet program at his high school, Asian students held a distinct plurality, if not majority, to the white students in the program, with both identities domineering the smaller proportion of Black and Latinx students. The same applies to the Communications Arts magnet program where white students hold the plurality.
The most interesting insight I gained from my conversation with Shu relates to how one’s performance in high school and subsequent educational endeavors are rooted in an unofficial, yet expected K-12 experience. Shu’s experience with magnet programs began as early as 3rd grade at Cold Spring Elementary School, followed him through to Takoma Park Middle School and carried into Blair High’s STEM magnet program. In fact, it was often discussed in his family and cultural community that, to have the best chance at being accepted into the rigorous high school magnet, attending those specific grade schools and living within a specific neighborhood to qualify for those school districts were something of a prerequisite.
In theory, acceleration opportunities in public schools could contribute massively to bridging the racial and socio-economic equity gap that has been built on centuries of racially-fueled oppression and discrimination of minorities, particularly Black and Brown Americans. In reality, most of these programs, from AP courseloads to IB diplomas to single-discipline magnets, use the long-held belief of promoting diversity and improved access to quality education as their failsafe justification for existence in educational settings across America. Yet, they still exist without actually cultivating the minds of and promising brighter futures to predominantly Black and Brown youth.
However, in recent years, school administrators have taken new approaches to promoting a holistic evaluation of magnet program candidates. “Instead of [only] focusing on the standardized exam and taking into account future feedback,” Shu commented, “they [take] into consideration where you come from—what region in the county, and what school you would be otherwise going to.” This change in evaluation policy reflects how administrators are finally beginning to realize and legitimately consider the impact of residential segregation on a student’s socioeconomic standing and ability to access private modes of instruction in hopes of producing test scores competitive with those born into affluence.
Even in school systems that maintain a more self-directed advanced placement program over a magnet program model, the quality of a child’s primary education can leave significant, varying implications on a student, which are compounded by socioeconomic and racial disparities by the time that student reaches high school. Maya Kyriakides ‘24, a graduating senior at Branford High School in Branford, CT, describes her community as suburban with a fair amount of socioeconomic disparity: “ [Branford has] some very rich [families], but at the same time, my bus on the way to school would pass by trailer parks to pick up kids.” She has also observed the academic cultures in her community’s primary public schools and how they are reflective of residential divides. According to Kyriakides, students who attend Tisko Elementary School, one of the three elementary schools in her city, were found to have performed distinctly well in courses at the high school level. In addition, “Tisko kids” were frequently among the few students from Branford High to attain admission to nearby Yale University and other top-tier institutions.
Similar cases can be found across the country, like in the community of Bellevue, Washington. In an interview with The Politic, rising Yale first-year Eve Chinea ‘24 commented on the academic culture of her alma mater, Newport Senior High School. An affluent public school funded by sizable property levies on houses within the district, Newport is an example of how the greatest amount of funding and resources reach students who are already considerably financially stable.
In Chinea’s words, “[Newport] routinely sends students to [the] Top 10 [Universities]…Parents who want their kids to have that kind of future are coming to Bellevue because of our schools.” When asked about elementary and middle schools that generally feed into Newport, the neighborhood zoned to Somerset Elementary School first came to her mind. Here, she describes typical houses listed at prices upward of one million dollars. The property taxes of such affluent suburbs contribute healthily to the funds that reach their district schools, but the same cannot be said for housing districts historically listed as less valuable.
According to education research experts Ivy Morgan and Ary Amerikaner, “school districts serving the largest populations of Black, Latino, or American [Native] students receive roughly $1,800, or 13 percent, less per student in state and local funding than those serving the fewest students of color.” This gap must be directly addressed in the form of increased funding from the state level, specifically to these school districts that receive less local funding as a result of gerrymandering, redlining, and corresponding insufficient property tax funds that, in Bellevue and around the world, cannot compare to more affluent districts just down the road.
Julianna Russ, a 2019-2020 Journalism Fellow for Student Voice, the nation’s largest student-led non-profit dedicated to education equity, wrote in a research paper on Cincinnati public schools that, in addition to increased state funding, enrichment programs that directly connected inner-city students with nearby universities and various other post-secondary simulative experiences could leave a positive impact on graduation, employment, and college matriculation rates for young people who often unfortunately feel as though social mobility through higher education cannot be their reality.
At the end of the day, acceleration opportunities such as magnets are simply bandaids on the much deeper, gaping wounds that divides access to equal educational opportunities for students in urban and suburban school districts. The solution of reforming admissions policy so that magnet program populations are representative of a school’s racial diversity is on the path of progress, but this is not where to end the discussion on pursuing fundamental steps towards true educational equity in the United States. Our nation’s impoverished youth and youth of color deserve what many privileged American students recognize as the status quo.
By encouraging state governments to increase funding allocations specifically towards impoverished school districts, financial equity between high-poverty and low-poverty public schools can be met. This reallocation of state funds can come from defunding penal institutions such as hyper-militarized city police departments and returning those funds to communities in the form of social welfare programs—in this case, securing equal access to the right of public education for children of historically disenfranchised demographics. Increasing state allocations for these schools based on exact funding disparities between high-income and low-income districts is the most direct approach to solving issues of equity, and by utilizing those funds to cultivate resources such as enrichment programs detailed above, each student will be able to attend school feeling as though the odds aren’t stacked against them as they have been for so long.