In 1968, the United States launched Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon and return safely. In that same year but with much less publicity, Tacoma Public Schools launched the nation’s first magnet school, McCarver Elementary School, in an attempt to diversify its segregated school system.

Almost fifty years later, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a Federal court ruling in Mississippi show that school segregation remains a national problem and that magnet schools are still a viable solution that fly under the public radar.

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Tacoma’s magnet concept was a response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, and was followed the next year by Trotter Elementary School in Boston. Magnet offerings around the country have since grown; today nearly 4,000 magnet schools nationwide serve over 2 million students.

Magnets work by focusing on an educational theme, like science, technology, foreign language immersion, or performing arts. These themes attract a wide range of students from different backgrounds and neighborhoods.

These simple principles run contrary to many of the segregated school districts across the country, and, strikingly, according to GAO report, this problem is getting worse, not better. Sixty years after the Supreme Court ordered schools to stop providing “separate but equal” services along racial and socio-economic lines, too many educational districts allow geography to segregate their students.

The GAO found that 16 percent of public schools around the country had high percentages of students who were poor, black or Hispanic in the 2013-14 school year, a stark increase from 9 percent in 2000-1. Three quarters or more of the students in these schools were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, an indication of how poverty removes any other educational options for these families.

The Mississippi ruling shows that this is not just an urban, inner city problem, and it also shows the difficulties that administrators face in ridding their schools of this entrenched problem. The court found that the geographic boundaries determining who attends middle school and high school in Cleveland, Mississippi, effectively sent the white students to one facility and the black students to the other. The case was first filed in 1965, three years before Apollo 8 and the launch of McCarver’s magnet programming.

The educators who designed the McCarver school broke those geographic boundaries by establishing the school as a center of excellence, and admission was chosen through a lottery. Magnets have taken this model and applied it throughout the country with success; today magnet schools comprise one quarter of the top 100 public high schools in the country.

After two years, McCarver was declared a success. Enrollment of black students in the school declined from 86 percent in 1967 to 53 percent in 1969, and enrollment of white students increased. The racial balances of the nearby schools also evened out and the district as a whole became more desegregated.

The city of Hartford, Connecticut, learned from these past successes and used magnet programming to desegregate its own school system. Hartford Public Schools currently has 20 magnet schools that feature theme-based programs such as nursing and health sciences, arts, engineering and technology, and government and law. According to the Connecticut Department of Education, the number of students attending integrated schools increased from 11 percent in 2007 to nearly 50 percent in 2014.

Interestingly, charter schools—the current fad in school choice—do not provide similar results in desegregating education. According to the GAO report, in 2000-1, charter schools comprised 3 percent of schools with mostly high-poverty, black and Hispanic student bodies; by 2013-14 that number had increased to 13 percent.

School desegregation is not just a lofty goal that can be set aside if it’s not convenient. Study after study has linked it to academic performance for students of all races. And students who interact daily with other students of different backgrounds have fewer biases and are better able to work with different types of people later in life.

The thing is, solving school segregation is not rocket science; it’s been done before and through the federal Magnet School Assistance Program, funding is available for school districts to apply this solution. School district administrators do not have to draw up elaborate busing schemes to break the geographic boundaries, they just need to broaden their offerings and open them up to all students.

Getting a decent education in the U.S., after all, really should not be such a moonshot.


Todd Mann is the executive director of Magnet Schools of America.