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Since the 1960s, many school districts have promoted magnet schools as a vehicle for reducing minority-group isolation and increasing school choice for parents, students, and teachers. By definition, magnet schools are public schools that are able to attract students of diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds by offering a special curricular theme or pedagogical approach. In contrast to conventional zone schools, where students are assigned by geographic location, magnet schools usually enroll students on a voluntary basis, drawing from areas beyond the traditional neighborhood locale. The underlying premise is simple: A magnet's specialized focus is compelling enough to draw a diverse range of families to attend a school outside their immediate zone, even if this requires travel to a different, or even distant, neighborhood.
Magnet schools originally emerged as a response to involuntary busing to achieve racial integration of schools and the growing demand for variation in traditional public education. Experiments with "alternative schools," "street academies," and "open classrooms" provided models for magnet schools and gained prominence after federal court rulings in the 1970s that accepted magnet programs as a strategy for voluntary desegregation.1 Between 1982 and 1991, the number of magnet schools doubled, from 1,019 to 2,433, with magnet school enrollment nearly tripling from 441,000 to 1.2 million students.2 Funding from the federal government-with the Emergency School Aid Act from 1972-81—and the Magnet Schools Assistance program (MSAP) from 1985 until present—also encouraged the growth of magnet programs. By 2001-02, more than 3,100 magnet schools were operating in 230 districts.3 Today in 2008, according to Magnet Schools of America (MSA), a nonprofit education association, there are more than 5,000 magnet schools serving approximately 2.5 million children.4