A Desegregation Tool That Backfired: Magnet Schools and Classroom Segregation

By West, Kimberly C. | The Yale Law Journal, June 1994 | Go to article overview
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A Desegregation Tool That Backfired: Magnet Schools and Classroom Segregation

West, Kimberly C., The Yale Law Journal

Magnet schools--schools offering a special curriculum and capable of attracting students of different racial backgrounds--are often touted as one of the most effective desegregation tools available. How often racial segregation occurs within such schools, however, is rarely discussed. In a successfully desegregated school, we expect to see children of various races and ethnicities learning together in the same classroom. Yet, many supposedly desegregated magnet schools operate racially segregated classrooms.(1) By definition, it is paradoxical to attach the label "desegregated" to a magnet school that operates segregated classrooms. Nevertheless, the commonly accepted definition of desegregation permits a magnet school with racially segregated classrooms to be deemed desegregated.

This Note argues that courts assessing the desegregation effectiveness of magnet schools should evaluate the desegregation of classrooms as well as buildings. Part I, after describing magnet schools and their role in the desegregation of school systems, presents support for the claim that many magnet schools are rife with racially segregated classrooms. Racial segregation within partial-site(2) magnet schools is particularly damaging to the minority students who constitute the nonmagnet portion of the school, because it labels them as inferior to the white transfer students who constitute the bulk of the magnet students within the school. Part Il explains how the methods developed by academics to evaluate desegregation plans have made it possible for magnet schools to operate separate classrooms for minority and white students, yet still be considered desegregated schools. Part Ill describes constitutional prohibitions against racial segregation within magnet schools, but notes that federal funding programs for desegregation-oriented magnet schools do not explicitly require the Department of Education to consider how the magnet program will affect classroom racial composition. Pan IV discusses the declining number of school desegregation cases in which the court explicitly considers within-school racial segregation. The failure of courts over the last several decades to consider classroom racial composition has resulted in desegregation plans centered around magnet schools that merely shift racial segregation from the building to the classroom level. Part IV concludes that courts should pay particular attention to classroom racial composition as they fashion equitable remedies to school segregation.


This Note maintains that some magnet schools, especially those structured as "partial-site" magnet schools, operate segregated classrooms. This proposition is supported by accounts of classroom segregation reported in academic literature and in the popular press(3) and by individuals who have surveyed magnet schools across the country.(4) This Part describes how partial-site magnet schools invariably assign their nonmagnet nontransfer (neighborhood) students to racially identifiable classrooms; how the type of magnet school included in court-ordered desegregation plans is usually of the partial-site variety; and how the fact that magnets are obliged to attract their students may lead officials administering magnet schools to implement policies which cause classroom segregation. This segregation has lead to a horrible irony: desegregation-oriented magnet schools have placed an explicit label of inferiority on the minority children they were designed to relieve.

A. Magnet Schools and Their Role in Desegregation

A "magnet school" is designed to attract students away from their neighborhood schools much as magnets attract metal objects. A distinctive school curriculum organized around a special theme or method of instruction creates the magnetic field that draws students.(5) As originally conceived, magnet schools were designed to accomplish two ends: (1) to enhance students' academic performance through a distinctive curriculum and (2) to enhance the school's racial and social diversity.

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A Desegregation Tool That Backfired: Magnet Schools and Classroom Segregation


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