Law & Courts

Use of Race a Concern for Magnet Schools

By Mark Walsh — October 25, 2007 7 min read
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Federal education officials were in the final stages of authorizing their latest round of grants for magnet schools when the U.S. Supreme Court in late June issued a major decision on whether school districts may consider race when assigning students to school.

The high court, by a 5-4 majority, struck down race-conscious assignment policies in the Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky., school districts because certain assignment decisions were based on individual students’ racial status. In a significant concurring opinion, however, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy stressed that districts were not barred from all consideration of race.

Suddenly, every program involving race in education was under intense new scrutiny, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program, which provides about $106 million a year to help districts establish or revise schools or programs that draw students from across typical attendance boundaries.

“We had the interesting timing of the Supreme Court ruling landing on our desks” just as officials were reviewing the magnet school grant applications for compliance with federal civil rights laws, said Richard Foster, a lawyer with the department’s office for civil rights, or OCR. He was speaking here Oct. 22 to participants at the annual legislative conference of Magnet Schools of America, a private lobbying and support group for magnet programs.


At a conference session a day earlier, Maree F. Sneed, a lawyer with the Washington firm Hogan & Hartson who works closely with school districts on desegregation matters, said the ruling had prompted anxious calls to her from districts that knew their magnet schools’ grant applications were in the final stages of review.

She said districts were getting calls from the OCR, which appeared to be scrutinizing the applications closely after the high court’s June 28 decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. (“Use of Race Uncertain for Schools,” July 18, 2007.)

“Any mention of race seemed to raise a question” with the civil rights office, Ms. Sneed told the participants.

Mr. Foster of the OCR declined to discuss the reviews in greater detail, citing Education Department procedures about who may answer press inquiries.

But in his remarks to the conference attendees, he suggested that his office, along with other observers, was hardly surprised to see the Supreme Court limit the consideration of race in student assignments, given that the court has moved in recent years toward greater skepticism of the constitutionality of race-based government actions of various types.

“I don’t think those of you who have been with us in the magnet schools program over the past 10 years should find the ruling a complete shock,” Mr. Foster said.

Anxious Calls

Magnet schools have been a desegregation tool for decades, and the 23-year-old federal grant program, as defined by Congress in the No Child Left Behind Act and its predecessors, has a core purpose of “the elimination, reduction, or prevention of minority-group isolation” in schools with “substantial proportions of minority students.” The Education Department defines that proportion as anything over 50 percent of enrollment.

The recent Supreme Court ruling now has made it much more challenging for a program whose central goal is to help desegregate schools to take race into account.

One trend that seemed apparent at the Magnet Schools of America conference, however, is that districts have been moving away in recent years from relying solely on race to assign students to such programs, notwithstanding their purpose as a tool to reduce racial isolation.

One factor has been the refinement of criteria considered race-neutral for selecting students for magnet school assignment, such as families’ socioeconomic status, parents’ level of educational attainment, and the academic performance of students’ “sending” schools.

“If you are going to use race-neutral factors, your life is easy” under the Supreme Court ruling, Ms. Sneed told the participants.

Both Ms. Sneed and Anurima Bhargava, the education-practice director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in New York City, stressed that in their view, districts were not completely barred under the June ruling from taking race into account on an individual basis.

“If you say, ‘I want to go there,’ ” Ms. Sneed said, educators should be prepared to consider race as part of a more holistic review of students for admission to magnet programs.

Ms. Bhargava said that some of the so-called race-neutral approaches, such as relying on socioeconomic factors, had not been successful in achieving racial-diversity goals in all places that have turned to that approach.

“There is not going to be one answer for all school districts in the country,” Ms. Bhargava said.

The conference did not schedule any opponents of race-based government action, who take a different view on how much room the Supreme Court has left school districts to consider race. Some say that even under Justice Kennedy’s opinion, any assignment of individual students based on their race would be illegal.

More Voluntary Programs

Robert G. Brooks, the executive director of Magnet Schools of America, said in an interview that an estimated 4,000 magnet programs exist in the United States. About 2,000 of the programs belong to the Washingtonbased MSA, which also has individual educators and others, such as consultants, as members.

The federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program has been viewed as an important source of start-up money for the local programs. An Education Department-commissioned study released in 1996 found that federally subsidized magnet programs had, at best, a modest impact in helping reduce the isolation of minority-group members in public schools. But the federal grant program has remained popular and has been a mainstay of the Education Department budget.

On Sept. 27, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced the award of $100 million in magnet school grants to 41 districts in 17 states. It was the first award under the program in three years. Steven L. Brockhouse, who oversees the program for the Education Department’s office of innovation and improvement, noted that while magnet programs tend to be associated with large urban school districts, more suburban districts are applying for the grants and winning some of the funding.

“Suburban schools are seeing issues of segregation, and they’re seeing magnet schools as a way to address that issue,” he said at the Oct. 21-23 conference.

Another trend is that while most grants used to go for magnet programs that were being established as part of a court-supervised desegregation plan, many more districts were now seeking the federal aid for voluntary magnet plans. Among the 41 new recipients, 31 grants went to voluntary magnet plans, while 10 went to magnet plans required under federal or state court orders,Mr. Brockhouse said.

Some of the more popular themes for magnet schools were math and science, technology, engineering, visual and performing arts, and the International Baccalaureate program, he said. A newer theme gaining popularity involves magnet programs that focus on teaching so-called critical foreign languages, notably Chinese, Mr. Brockhouse said.

One recipient in the latest round of grants is the 26,000-student Springfield, Mass., school system, an urban district that operates under a state court desegregation order.

The district was awarded $3.2 million for the first year of the three-year grant to develop five magnet programs, including one at a new middle school, said Joshua P. Bogin, the district’s magnet school director. Because the system is still under court supervision, the Supreme Court’s race ruling will not keep Springfield from taking race into account in assigning students to the new magnet programs.

Mr. Bogin attended the conference, and he offered his perspective not only as a magnet-program director, but also as a former desegregation consultant working out of New York University and a one-time civil rights lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice under Presidents Carter and Reagan.

“People involved with school desegregation for many years pretty much universally roll our eyes at the prospect of reducing racial segregation or minority-group isolation without taking race into account,”Mr. Bogin said in an interview. “Nevertheless, that has been the clear direction the court has been pushing us for many years.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Seattle and Jefferson County cases, “with these fractured opinions, really lends itself to the development of nuanced approaches,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week


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