Los Angeles Magnet High Schools and Unmet Desegregation Goals

Mayra Negrete


Parents consider many things when deciding where to send their children to school. They must choose between public and private, small and large, and close and far away schools. The options are not the same for all parents, however. Some families are constrained by where they live and the school options available in their area. Magnet schools provide parents with a slightly different option. They allow students to go outside of their neighborhood schools. Magnet schools “have historically been a popular way for school districts to comply with desegregation orders” (Frankenberg et al., 8). Magnet schools are therefore used as a way to produce racially diverse schools. They “were designed to offer parents an alternative to traditional educational programmes with the goal of encouraging families, White families mostly, to allow their children to be bussed to schools, other than their neighbourhood school” (Andre-Bechely, 1359). Just because these schools were designed to desegregate education does not mean that they necessarily do. In places where magnet schools only allow mobility within the district, students may end up going to magnet schools that are as segregated as the neighborhood schools these students would have otherwise attended. This is in fact what we observe in many of the magnet high schools in Los Angeles. Magnet high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are not meeting the goal of desegregation. The LAUSD magnet schools’ demographics illustrate the shortcomings of the magnet program in reaching its goal and bring into question the benefits of attending one of these schools.

The LAUSD magnet schools website describes the magnet programs as “Court-Ordered voluntary integration opportunities available to students in grades K-12 living within the LAUSD boundaries” (echoices). A key component of these schools is choice. A parent makes the choice to enroll his child in a magnet school. Moreover, the parent decides which magnet school is the one for his child. Though students are not ensured a place in a magnet school, there is some notion of agency in the process. While this means that parents can choose to send their children to these schools, it also means that parents can choose not to send their children to them. It is therefore important to understand why magnet schools were created in the first place and what they attempt to achieve.

The case Crawford v. Los Angeles Board of Education was crucial to the creation of magnet schools in Los Angeles. Mary Crawford had been denied access to the school nearest her residence in 1961 “for no reason other than the School Board’s policy to ensure the separation of races” (University of La Verne Law Review). In 1963, minority students filed a class action against the district and in 1970, “the trial court issued an opinion finding that the District was substantially segregated in violation of the State and Federal Constitutions. The court ordered the District to prepare a desegregation plan for immediate use” (Justia U.S. Supreme Court). However, Proposition 1 which dealt with mandatory transporting of students was debated and later ratified (Justia U.S. Supreme Court). The case ended with the following opinion of the court in 1982:

“An amendment to the California Constitution provides that state courts shall not order mandatory pupil assignment or transportation unless a federal court would do so to remedy a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The question for our decision is whether this provision is itself in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” (Justia U.S. Supreme Court)

While this case did not directly result in magnet schools, it was during the time that it was being decided that the magnet program was created.

The programs “were established by the District in 1977 as part of its Voluntary Integration Programs [and] the goal of the programs was to establish and maintain programs with specialized curricular offerings that would draw students of various ethnic backgrounds” (Alkin et al., 16). The stated goal of the program has several implications. First, it acknowledges the importance of integration and the benefits that students receive from not being racially isolated. However, while it appears to have the goal of equalizing educational opportunities, by adding specialized curricula in order to attract White students, the program perpetuates a system of inequality. Given that White students are the ones targeted for these schools in order to result in more racially balanced schools, the specialized curricula appear to be for their benefit. Combined with the fact that not all minority students can attend magnet schools and have access to these resources, a system of inequality in continued with many minority students being denied access to the resources these schools offer.

Early Desegregation Results within Magnet Schools

How successful were magnet schools originally in achieving desegregation? It is necessary to find out if LAUSD magnet schools ever actually achieved this goal or if it was something that was never attained. In the years 1982-1983, schools located in predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian, and other Non-Anglo (PHBAO) areas “[had] not attracted sufficient numbers of White students to yield desegregated environments” (Alkin et al., 17). This suggests that White parents may not have wanted to send their children to schools in areas high in minority populations. This may especially be true at the high school level, as Marvin Alkin notes that “only about one-third of the programs at the secondary and other configurations were desegregated [and] the greater proportion of PHBAO magnets at the secondary level appears to be at least partly due to their location (Alkin et al., 46). Alkin’s did find that “slightly more than half of the elementary programs met the desegregation criteria” in 1982-1983 (Alkin et al., 46). It is possible, then, that magnets were being successful in desegregating at the elementary level and not at the secondary and high school levels. Magnet high schools were thus in need of more desegregation even in 1982.

Deviating from Original Goal

            The original goal of desegregating schools may no longer be a priority for magnet schools. Some school districts have moved away from desegregation and “desegregation has been replaced with other efforts, such as race-neutral goals like socioeconomic integration, and in other instances with goals that de-emphasized racial or socioeconomic concentrations of students altogether” (Frankenberg et al., 23). Additionally, “there has also been an increasing emphasis on raising the academic performance of American school children” (Frankenberg et al., 12). An emphasis on academic performance may take away time and attention from desegregation plan making. While “magnet programs have been successful at improved academic outcomes… the addition of these extra educational goals makes it more difficult to focus on trying to prevent segregation” (Frankenberg et al., 13). The academic achievement that students are attaining in magnet schools is of course of importance, but the benefits of integration may be compromised in the process of focusing more on test scores. Attention to integration is necessary because if schools did not really achieve desegregation even when it was their goal to do so, then when it is no longer the goal, the probability is even lower that magnet schools will be centers of racial integration. Among those schools that have changed their goals and are don’t have desegregation as a goal anymore, “a disproportionately high percentage…report a decrease in integration levels” (Frankenberg et al., 24). This suggests that without the explicit goal of desegregation, integration does not occur. It appears necessary to maintain integration as a priority in order to have desegregated schools.

People have been working to achieve integration and a deemphasizing of desegregation now could undue that work. Gary Orfield, of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, states that “after an increase in integration for black students for a third of the century, segregation began to intensify again… [and that] the impact of the repeal or non-enforcement of desegregation plans became apparent in a number of regions, particularly in the South, where most of the mandatory desegregation occurred” (Ofield, 5). Though magnet schools are based on voluntary desegregation rather than mandatory, similar results of resegregation seem likely. Orfield’s mentioning of non-enforcement of desegregation plans parallels the magnet schools’ deviation from the original goal of desegregation. If resegregation occurs when there is no enforcement of desegregation plans, it may be that White parents are not easily willing to place their children in schools that are racially diverse, meaning that schools need to take actions that will result in racially integrated schools. A 2008 study on magnet schools found that “while schools with desegregation goals had the highest share of schools that were also substantially integrated (38.6%), the second-highest category of schools that were integrated were schools without any desegregation goals” (Frankenberg et al., 23). From this finding it may seem that having or not having desegregation goals did not make much of a difference in levels of integration, but it is important to look at what the level of integration was in those schools that had at one point had desegregation goals and were changing them for different goals. Because the LAUSD magnet schools were created with the objective of desegregation, it is this transitioning group of schools that are relevant for analyzing integration levels, if it is the case that LAUSD magnets are changing goals. The schools that were changing goals “had the lowest percentage [16.1%] considered substantially integrated” (Frankenberg et al., 23). This indicates that while never having had desegregation goals did not have such a significant impact, changing the goals to something else did result in low numbers of integrated schools.

In addition to schools changing their objectives from desegregation, the government appears to also be placing less importance on this goal. The government has shown this change in objectives in that “the number of magnet schools that receive MSAP [Magnet Schools Assistance Program] funding has declined in recent grant cycles because the overall funding level has remained stagnant and not adjusted for inflation at just over $100 million” (Frankenberg et al., 15). By not adjusting funding, schools are condemned to working with limited resources and are sent the message that their objectives are not a priority. Combined with schools themselves showing a shift in goals, this government shift in goals adds to the likelihood that magnet schools will move away from their original objectives and move towards goals that the government may view as more important and that may result in increased funding. Schools’ goal shift may or may not be a consequence of inadequate funding, but the two are bound to interact in ways that change how schools operate and what objectives they decide to prioritize or keep. This shift in government priorities has been happening for decades. The “desegregation aid program [the Emergency School Act Aid] , which was widely popular and had been shown to improve interracial schools, was summarily ended in President Reagan’s first budget [and] since then there has been only a small program of aid to magnet schools (Orfield, 13).  President Reagan was therefore outright against magnet schools’ stated objectives and a cut in funds was a way to limit their ability to put desegregation plans into action.

Policies were also put in place to prevent desegregation. For example, under the Rehnquist Court in the 1990s, it was established that “positive policies taking race into account for the purpose of creating integration were suspect and had to demonstrate both a compelling reason and prove the goal could not be realized without considering race [and] these policies led some lower courts to forbid even voluntary action for desegregation, such as magnet schools with desegregation policies for admissions” (Orfield, 16). The actions of those in higher positions of power appear to have heavily influenced what happened within schools. Because the court’s conclusion led to the forbidding of even voluntary desegregation, magnet schools lost one of their mechanisms for creating racially diverse schools. The Rehnquist Court’s opinion likely impacted LAUSD magnet schools’ ability to create integrated schools. The LAUSD choices website states that “each Magnet’s openings are determined by the need to maintain a racially balanced enrollment and by available space” (echoices). If these schools were no longer allowed to openly use race for admission, they might have had trouble in determining how many openings were left in their schools. This could manifest itself in schools using other characteristics for enrollment such as students’ addresses, socioeconomic status, or even last names. Conversely, it could result in magnet schools being discouraged from trying to achieve racial integration and ending up being schools that are as racially segregated as neighborhood schools.


Information for this paper was gathered from numerous sources. Google Scholar was one of the search engines used to obtain academic articles on the topic. In order to find relevant research, it was necessary to search for information on both LAUSD magnet schools in particular and magnet schools in general. This provided current information on the topic and previous research that had explored similar questions. The previous research on the topic was used to contextualize the current question as to whether LAUSD magnet schools are currently reaching their stated objective of desegregation and what the implications are in the cases of failed desegregation. Additionally, because it was necessary to learn about why magnet schools in Los Angeles had been established, the Crawford v. Los Angeles Board of Education case was also referred to for information. The case was used to learn about what preceded the establishment of the schools and what guidelines were set for the making of these schools. It was also necessary to determine just how successful or unsuccessful Los Angeles magnet schools have been in becoming racially integrated schools.  Information was first gathered from the LAUSD magnet website to determine exactly what these schools/this program was intended for and how it was meant to operate.

Data was gathered from the school information branch site and from the Elementary and Secondary Information System (ELSI). This data was for school demographics. Data for all schools in LAUSD was available on the school information branch site (http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/), and the schools of interest were magnet high schools in the district. The racial demographics were available for the 2013-2014 school year and they provided the numbers and percentages of students attending the schools from the following racial/ethnic categories: American Native/ Alaska Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Hispanic, Black, and White. This data was analyzed to figure out how many schools were at least 25% White/ less than 75% minority. The data from ELSI was analyzed to determine how numbers of White students in magnet high schools has changed over time. Finally, for city demographics and average home values the websites census.gov and Zillow.com were utilized. This data was used to determine what the racial demographics were of those cities that belonged to school districts other than LAUSD and what the average home values were in order to determine what socioeconomic status people had to belong to in order to be able to afford living in these cities.

Current Racial Demographics in LAUSD Magnet Schools

After looking at the schools’ demographic data, it became evident that LAUSD magnet schools were not achieving desegregation. Out of the 59 magnet high schools (grades 9-12) for which data was available, only 13 had at least 25% White students (search.lausd.k12.ca.us). This means that the majority of magnet high schools in this district are composed of at least 75% minorities. In fact, many schools were 99% minority students (search.lausd.k12.ca.us). Furthermore, for the nine schools for which there was information on ELSI about changes in racial demographics, only one school had an increase in percentage of White students between the 1997-1998 school year and the 2013-2014 school year (see Graph). This suggests that the Rehnquist Court’s policy changes previously mentioned did impact how many White students magnet schools were able to enroll. Most of these schools were not succeeding very much with desegregation to begin with, as shown by the fact that only one of the nine schools had more than 25% White students in 1997-1998 (ELSI). Likely in part due to the policy changes that deemphasized desegregation and the changing magnet school objectives, these magnet high schools are still as far from achieving integration today as they were 16 years ago. These demographics illustrate the segregated nature of these schools. Moreover, they suggest that White students are electing to attend other types of schools.


Perhaps this is due to the cities that make up the school district, or rather the cities that are not part of the district. Looking at the map below, it becomes evident that many of the cities that are not part of LAUSD are primarily white and middle and upper income areas.  In fact, every city surrounding Beverly Hills is part of the district except for Beverly Hills. The same is true for Santa Monica. Beverly Hills was 77.4% white in 2014 and Santa Monica was 77.6% white in 2010 (census.gov).



If it is a trend that those cities with large percentages of White residents have separate school districts, then it will be extremely difficult for magnet schools to have a significant number of White students given that LAUSD magnet schools are not inter-district, but rather intra-district, meaning they only enroll students who reside in cities that are within the school district. The map shows that cities along the beach are not part of LAUSD. Because of these cities’ locations, housing is higher than in other parts of Los Angeles. Hermosa Beach, for example, had an average home value of $1,445,700 and Palos Verdes Estates had an average home value of $1,964,800, according to Zillow.com (Zillow.com). These high home values suggest that these cities’ residents come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of the history of this country where minorities have been marginalized, it is more likely that those of higher socioeconomic status are White. Beverly Hills and Santa Monica also have extremely high home values at $3,189,700 and $1,326,400, respectively (Zillow.com).  By creating their own school districts, these cities are not only creating obstacles to racial integration, but are also keeping their capital concentrated in their region. This racial and socioeconomic isolation of those living in cities like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica impedes magnet schools from having access to White students and from having capital apart from what the government allocates for magnet schools. Due to the fact that cities that are largely White have separate school districts, magnet schools in LAUSD do not have many options of where they can draw White students from in order to have more racially balanced schools.

Implications of Failed Desegregation

The failed desegregation and therefore integration of magnet schools has consequences. The benefits of integration are lost with a failure to desegregate. Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring found that with regards to desegregation, “the issues of racism and intolerance born out of ignorance and isolation seem to coalesce for many parents into a perspective that considers school integration at the elementary school level an important starting point” (Smrekar and Goldring, 106). Desegregation and integration are therefore important issues for parents who want to do something to try to solve race relation problems that exist in society. These parents are acknowledging that racial isolation is one of the causes of racism. They realize that not having exposure to people of other races or ethnicities is detrimental to their children and to society as a whole. LAUSD magnet high schools are failing to make interracial contact feasible for students. This could have detrimental effects in the long run because if racial isolation is one of the causes of racism, and Whites are continuing to attend racially isolated schools instead of magnet schools, then racism may become more difficult to extinguish. It could also be that the correlation goes in the other direction and that racism causes racial isolation. Either way, having schools that are both desegregated and integrated can help solve both issues of isolation and racial intolerance.

Patricia Gurin from the University of Michigan states that “the presence of diverse students on a campus is a necessary but certainly not sufficient condition to work in a positive manner” (Gurin et al., 18). LAUSD magnet schools therefore need to not only desegregate, but also integrate their students in order to have a racially balanced school and harmonious race relations. It appears that these schools do realize that both desegregation and integration are necessary as seen on the guidelines the district has established on their “Procedures to Establish a New Magnet Program for the 2016-2017 School Year” guide. This guide states that “applications must provide a detailed explanation on how the school plans to address the Five Harms of Racial Isolation: Low Academic Achievement, Low self-esteem, Lack of Access to Post-Secondary Opportunities, Interracial Hostility and Intolerance, and Overcrowded Conditions” (Cole and Muncey, 4). The fact that interracial hostility and intolerance is one of the harms mentioned implies that the district is aware that simply putting students of different races is not enough and that a set plan is needed in order to reduce racial intolerance.

Because racial integration and desegregation are part of the guidelines, it appears that these are still goals of LAUSD magnet schools. This suggests that it may not be that the schools themselves have changing goals. Yet a change in government goals could still be affecting the extent to which magnet schools are able to reach their objectives. Perhaps LAUSD magnet high schools have been limited in their ability to create desegregated schools by the fact that certain cities in Los Angeles have become their own districts.


A possible limitation of the findings could be that for the trend showing that the percentage of White students attending has gone down, there were very few schools in the sample. Data was only available for nine out of the 59 LAUSD magnet high schools. It may be unreasonable to make a generalization from this small data set on demographic changes over time. Yet the data on current racial demographics does tell us that presently very few of these schools can be considered desegregated. It is also still necessary to determine whether the schools that are desegregated are integrated, which is something that future research may answer. Another possible limitation of the study is that the racial demographics of all the cities in LAUSD were not obtained, only those of the cities that had formed separate districts. It may be that some of the cities in the district have similar demographics and home values to those that are not in the district, though it is difficult to imagine that most cities would have such high home values and such high percentages of Whites given the heterogeneity of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles is said to be a place of diversity, but this diversity is not reflected in LAUSD magnet high schools. Only 22% of these schools had less than 75% minority students. This means that minority students are mostly going to school with other minority students and White students are attending racially isolated schools. The battle for desegregation has not been won. In Los Angeles, students are even more segregated than they were decades ago, perhaps due to the fact that those cities that house White families are the cities that are not part of LAUSD, meaning that they cannot attend magnet schools. Looking at the guidelines for establishing a new magnet school gives the impression that magnet schools in Los Angeles still hold objectives relating to desegregation and integration, but that they are not attaining said objectives. Parents might send their children to magnet schools because they hope their children will be in a diverse environment, and the reality in Los Angeles is that it will be unlikely that the school will actually be racially diverse. Magnet schools present themselves as working hard towards desegregation and integration, but this is not the reality for high school students who attend these schools in Los Angeles. These students are not receiving the benefits that integration brings because the schools have failed them in this sense. It is necessary for LAUSD magnet high schools to put more effort into achieving racial integration so that students who attend these schools can benefit from integration and so that racial relations in society may be improved.



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