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10.2: New Visions

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    New Visions of Education: Magnet and Charter Schools

    By: jyaeg001

    Learning Targets Students will be able to:

    • Introduction

      What is a magnet school?

      A magnet school is designed to do just what its name suggests: attract students. Within any student population, there are children with a variety of interests and career aspirations. Magnet schools offer specialized curriculums that appeal to particular student groups, such as young people who want to study in depth such areas as foreign languages, drama, computer technology, or advanced sciences. These schools are under the umbrella of a larger school district and may even be housed in an existing school that also offers a traditional curriculum (Villaverde, 2003). Magnet schools receive at least part of their funding from the sponsoring public school district. In addition, because magnet schools can assist in attracting racially mixed student populations from different socio-economic backgrounds, federal government grants related to desegregation are available to help support the costs of some schools (Villaverde, 2003).

      Who is allowed to attend a magnet school?

      The student population of magnet schools can be chosen in more than one way. The enrollment process often begins with the parents of an interested student filling out an application. Some districts choose students solely on the basis of a lottery that includes applicants from different income levels, neighborhoods, ethnic backgrounds, gender, and races. Other districts also have application requirements related to minimum academic achievement levels. Parents list their first, second, and third choice for magnet school attendance on their applications. Waiting lists are compiled for those students who do not receive immediate placement. With these restrictions, free choice is more accurately termed controlled choice (Archbald, 2004).

      To learn more about the goals of magnet schools, funding, and current legislation affecting magnet schools, visit the site of Magnet Schools of America at

      What is a charter school?

      A charter school is a “publicly funded school that is typically governed by a group or organization under a contract or charter with the state…In return for funding and autonomy, the charter school must meet accountability standards” (National Center for Education Statistics, 2007, par.2). The charters list the school’s goals, details about the programs offered, specifics about student body selection, and the criteria that will be used for assessment (Buckley and Schneider, 2007). The charters have time constraints that typically range from three to five years. At the end of that time period, the charter-granting overseers, such as state officials, make a continuance decision based on how the terms of the charter have been met. A charter school may be founded by teachers or administrators within a school district, by a group of parents, or even by a private or community organization. Federal grants are available to assist with the initial costs, and funds also come from the school districts whose students are being served by the charter school (Peterson, 2003). Like magnet schools, most charter schools are focused on providing more effective, innovative programs than parents are offered in traditional public schools (Buckley and Schneider, 2007).

      Who is allowed to attend a charter school?

      Since charter schools receive state and federal funding, they need to meet the same diversity requirements as public schools and “reflect the social/ethnic makeup of their district” (Noll, 2005, p.226). There is an application process that may require meeting certain other criteria, such as passing an audition if the charter school has a curriculum that emphasizes theatrical arts. Many schools have no restrictions and often choose the student population on the basis of lottery outcomes. Using the lottery is a way to fairly decide who gains admittance to these schools with much smaller enrollments than most public schools (Noll, 2005).

      For more information about the charter school movement, how to start a charter school, and state requirements, go to

      What do proponents say about magnet and charter schools?
      1. Proponents of magnet and charter schools believe that these schools provide much-desired options for parents who are dissatisfied with the job that public schools are doing. Magnet and charter schools are especially appealing to those parents whose children are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and have been placed in schools with below average achievement statistics (Peterson 2003).
      2. Magnet and charter schools encourage competition and make public schools more aware of and more involved in improving their curriculums, teachers’ performance, and administration procedures (Villaverde, 2003).
      3. When compared with most traditional public schools, both magnet and charter schools offer better student-teacher ratios and smaller, more personal school environments that help prevent student dropouts and capitalize on students’ interests (Noll 2005).

      The director of the organization called Friends of Choice in Urban Schools stated about alternative schools that they “provide choices for parents, opportunities for teachers, and better schooling right now to some kids, rather than making them wait for yet another system-wide overhaul” (Buckley and Schneider, 2007, p. 285).

      What do critics say about magnet and charter schools?

      1. These special schools can drain school districts’ budgets and result in districts having less money to meet the needs of a much larger percentage of students (Peterson, 2003).
      2. Magnet and charter schools have failed to attract diverse student populations that match the composition of the communities’ school districts, and the existing diversity requirements are not being enforced (Archbald, 2004).
      3. The average achievement scores of students in magnet and charter schools are not higher than those of traditional public schools (Buckley and Schneider, 2007).

      What does the research reveal about magnet and charter schools?

      1. Use of public funds and effects on school districts: A Western Michigan University study (1998) concluded that “charter schools may not be living up to their promise of educational innovation and more effective use of public money” (Noll, 2005, p. 227). An extensive UCLA study of California charter schools (1998) in ten school districts found “no evidence that charter schools can do more with less” (Noll, 2005. p. 226). Marc Bernstein, a New York school district superintendent, explains that when money is taken from public school districts for the operation of charter and magnet schools, “there are but two choices: raise taxes or reduce programming. Either choice has serious consequences for public education” (Noll, 2005, p. 228).

      2. Diversity of student populations in magnet and charter schools: A 2003 study of magnet schools across the nation was reported in Sociology of Education. The researchers examined the effect of magnet school choice on the socio-economic stratification in school districts with magnet school as compared with the socio-economic stratification in school districts without magnet schools. The study did not find a positive growth in the socio-economic redistribution of students as a result of offering magnet school choices (Archbald, 2004). Similar research findings of charter schools were reported earlier in a Minneapolis study (1997) and a Texas study (2002). The reason for this failure of specialty schools to redistribute students more equitably along socio-economic lines was believed to be due to parents’ reluctance to have their children bussed long distances and due to parents’ reluctance to “face the prospect of their child being in a small minority…parents were likely to sort themselves along racial/ethnic lines” (Buckley and Schneider, 2007, p. 122). A 2004 study of magnet schools reported in the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk found that magnet schools did not significantly affect racial and class segregation because many magnet schools have entrance requirements that can only be met by students from higher income areas (Neild, 2004).

      3. Achievement: Magnet and charter schools typically attract higher achieving students, so it could be predicted that achievement scores of students attending these schools would be higher than students in traditional public schools. However, a November 2004 report by the National Assessment Governing Board concluded from its testing of elementary students in public school and elementary students in charter schools that the average achievement scores of those students enrolled in charter schools were lower than those students in public schools (National Education Association, 2008). The UCLA study of seventeen California charter schools (1998), mentioned above, also did not find an increase in academic scores (Noll, 2005). Finally, in 2006, the Public Policy Institute of California studied the magnet and charter schools in the city of San Diego and concluded that “on the whole, there was no systematic improvement or deterioration in test scores from participating in a choice program” (Betts and Rice, 2006, p. 184).

      Conclusion: What are the considerations for parents and teachers in relation to magnet and charter schools?

      There are success stories among the many magnet and charter schools started across the nation, but the overall research findings concerning average achievement levels are not favorable to these school reforms. Parents may want to consider using their influence to encourage school districts to offer innovative educational programs for all students, rather than creating or encouraging separate schools. Teachers may need to voice their concerns about the financial resources that are siphoned from the school districts for these unproven schools that serve a small proportion of the community’s children. This outflow of tax dollars affects the curriculums that public schools can afford. Both parents and teachers should be concerned about the fact that specialty schools can further segregate children along racial, socio-economic, and ethnic lines since school choice can often mean choosing to attend a school with students of the same backgrounds. Rather than creating the diversity that was intended by these school reforms, school choice could actually foster the growth of the very prejudices that a free public education for all was meant to eliminate.


      Archbald, D. (2004). School choice: magnet schools and the liberation model. Sociology of Education, 77 (4), 283-310.

      Betts, J. and Rice, L. (2006). Does School Choice work: Effects on StudentIntegration and Achievement. San Diego, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.

      Buckley, J. and Schneider, M. (2007). Charter Schools: Hope or Hype? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

      National Center for Education Statistics. (2007). Contexts of elementary and secondary education: school choice. Retrieved September 14, 2008 from

      National Education Association. (2008). Charter schools. Retrieved September 15, 2008 from

      Neild, R. (2004). The effects of magnet schools on neighborhood high schools: an examination of achievement among entering freshmen. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk,9 (1), 1-21.

      Noll, J. (2005). Taking Sides: Educational Issues. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.

      Peterson, P. (2003). The Future of School Choice. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution.

      Villaverde, L. (2003). Contemporary Education Issues: Secondary Schools. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.


      1. How do magnet and charter schools differ?

      a. Charter schools have their own governing documents that specify assessment criteria.

      b. Charter schools receive no public funding.

      c. Magnet and charter school do not differ.

      d. Charter schools always require IQ and achievement scores for admittance while magnet schools are always open to anyone in the district.

      2. What does the research reveal about the diversity of magnet and charter school student populations?

      a. The diversity meets existing stated requirements.

      b. There is no diversity

      c. The diversity of magnet and charter schools is identical with the school systems in the area.

      d. The diversity in many charter and magnet schools does not match the diversity of the school systems in which they are located.

      3. If you were a parent facing the choice of placing your child in an existing charter school, what question would the research findings lead you to ask the charter school principal in order to safeguard your child?

      a. What recreational programs are offered for my child?

      b. How many teachers are employed by this school?

      c. How do achievement levels of this charter school compare with the achievement levels of the existing public schools?

      d. Are the parental monthly payments automatically deducted or is a tuition bill sent?

      4. If the school district where you were working planned to open a charter school, what question would the research findings lead you to ask at the school board budget meeting?

      a. Will the charter school have penalties for uniform dress code violations?

      b. What career training will the charter school offer students?

      c. How will the district’s administrators make sure that the charter school follows all the rules and regulations of the school district?

      d. How will the loss of money to this new charter school’s operation impact the current school district’s programs?

      Answers 1.a, 2.d, 3.c, 4.d

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