(Illustration by Derrick Dent)

Decades after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, school systems across the U.S. are continuing to look for ways to ensure equity in education. But despite these ongoing efforts, ethnic and racial disparities are still particularly pronounced in magnet school programs. 

Magnet schools are publicly funded institutions with specialized curricula offering students admission by way of application. Now, one year after a national reckoning sparked conversations about institutional racism in nearly all corners of American life, magnet school officials are overhauling their application and educational practices to meet the moment. 

Magnet school programs, which claim to help young people achieve intellectual excellence, were born out of a backlash to the Brown v. Board decision. The ruling overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson, a previous SCOTUS case that had helped validate segregated education that relegated Black students into under-resourced schools. In the 1980s, after widespread recognition that income-separated cities and redlined housing districts effectively continued the era of school segregation, magnet schools started to entertain new solutions for integration (like busing), and specifically reached out to under-resourced middle schools to recruit Black and brown students and to bring white students to majority BIPOC schools. 

Magnet school admissions

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration discouraged taking race into consideration when deciding school placement. At the time, the president eliminated federal dollars aimed at desegregating schools, started to frame talking about racism as racist, and said that other methods of combating racism in education—such as busing—were unfair to white students. A 1995 Supreme Court ruling further narrowed the scope within which magnet programs could take race into admission considerations, leaving room for schools to consider race during the admissions process only if there was a court order to do so, the legacy of which now forces districts to talk about equity without first talking about inequity. 

“Part of creating well-rounded individuals is having them be aware of what’s going on in a larger context,” said Zeki Mokhtarzada, president of the Montgomery Blair Magnet School Foundation, in Montgomery County, Maryland. “When we create a more diverse society and when we have more equity, everyone gains. On the one hand, you want to make sure you have a cohort of students that can perform at the same level … on the other hand, we know that there are inherent biases in certain portions of the admissions process.” 

Mokhtarzada added that the admissions process at Blair has historically favored white male youth. He says the school is exploring ways of standardizing more subjective parts of the admissions process, like recommendation letters, as a way of counteracting racism Black and Latinx students are likely to face. 

Racism, discrimination, and microaggressions

Magnet schools often pride themselves as being part of the largest school system of choice in the United States, but they’re plagued with many of the same equity issues that all educational institutions deal with: questions of how to ensure that students of color are treated fairly and given opportunities in advanced placement courses, and how to create anti-racist, anti-sexist application standards in order to diversify their student body and create safe spaces for everyone. Magnet officials say these questions are part of ongoing conversations around creating anti-racist schools—questions they don’t yet have answers to. 

In that sense, officials are working against history to shape students’ experiences today, and to ensure that the precedent set by an inequitable school system does not continue. However, some students report that well-intentioned school systems can reproduce the very systems of racial hierarchy that they’re trying to dismantle. Mokhtarzada, who is Muslim, says his daughter deals with microaggressions—underhanded racist comments that tokenize or rely on tropes—at her magnet school. Mokhtarzada says his daughter was in her history class when the teacher began to ask her questions about Islam.

“I’m just tired of being the expert on Islam,” Mokhtarzada’s daughter later told him. “Why am I being asked questions about Islam? I’m the student.” 

“I don’t want my daughter to feel like she’s the only Muslim in the school,” Mokhtarzada says. “I can imagine it’s the same for [other] students of color.”

Racial dynamics in magnet schools are also likely to play out in white students’ favor, even when a district is led by an official who claims to want to bring these conversations to the forefront. 

Tim Sullivan, the superintendent of the Capitol Region Educational Council (CREC), which operates magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut, says his district is working to establish an anti-racist culture at its schools. Sullivan acknowledges that systemic racism actually played a role in creating CREC. A 1996 state Supreme Court ruling found that Hartford was in violation of the constitution, given that students “were racially, ethnically, and economically isolated and that, as a result, Hartford public school students had not been provided a substantially equal educational opportunity.” 

In CREC schools, 75% of the students are Black or Latinx, and the remaining 25% are either white or Asian, Sullivan says. In that sense, CREC is at risk of reinforcing the very racial dynamics that it seeks to rectify. Sullivan explains that wealthy CREC students “were finding their way to AP classes and non-affluent kids were not.” To him, that represented “another indicator of institutional racism at work.” Sullivan also says that in Hartford, as is the case in many other cities, race and income are heavily linked, with Black and Latinx families more likely to face impoverishment. 

Minority vs. minority

In searching for a remedy to this form of institutional racism, Sullivan unwittingly echoes some of the harms that students of color face in magnet programs: being pit against each other. 

Students who have attended magnet schools reported that the positioning of students of color as oppositional to each other and their respective success detracts from their experience. As writer Samantha Xiao Cody explained, Asian students are often faced with the “model minority” myth and serve as an example that non-white students can achieve success through hard work and following the rules. In contrast, Black and brown students are held responsible for the systems that make their educational experiences difficult. Black and brown students are also more severely punished than their white and Asian counterparts, and are also more likely to be suspended and expelled, according to ProPublica. Sullivan has offered a possible, though potentially unpopular solution to the problem:

“We could either try to recruit more kids of color to go to AP [class], or maybe, God forbid, recruit white and Asian kids to go to regular level classes,” he said. “Or we could just dismantle the classes and by doing so, dismantle the institutional racism,” Sullivan added, referring to changes CREC made in recent years to create pathways for Black and Latinx students to access AP classes.

CREC was started because of existing inequities in the school system. Now Sullivan and other parents are working to navigate what it looks like to implement tangible solutions that don’t corner Black and Latinx students while acknowledging the real racial differences that Asian students face. To Sullivan, who is white, part of the work involves challenging white colleagues and white parents to take on the work of racial equity and justice. 

“If we want to get to a racially equitable world, white people have some learning to do … [and] we have to take ownership and responsibility for the system that was created.”

This article is part four in a series about the racial reckoning in the public education system in the past year. Read the rest of the series here. The series was made possible through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.