Public, Private, Charter, Magnet - What's the Difference?

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A quick Google search on different types of schools brings up a dizzying array of options: charter, public, parochial, alternative, magnet, and international schools are all options for your school-aged child. If you want to dig deeper you can choose a Waldorf school, career-themed magnet school, or an online school. Or, you could take school into your own hands and home-school your child.

So how do you sort through the options and what are the differences?

We've done some research and pulled together a list of the major types of schools and their particular characteristics. There are advantages and disadvantages to each type of school and knowing the differences can help you make sure you find the best option for you and your child.

Public Schools:

Local Public Schools:

Public schools are funded by the taxes you pay and are administered by local school boards. They tend to focus on a set curriculum in order to prove basic instruction to all students. Because they are locally funded, public schools can vary in quality depending on district. The majority of American students (88%) attend local public schools.

Charter Schools

Charter schools receive public money, but function as autonomous public schools in exchange for being held accountable for their results. While they are not exempt from state and/or federal educational standards, they allow teachers and administrators increased flexibility and control over the methods and culture of the school. The rules, structure, and charter authorization for charter schools are established by the state government and vary from state to state. States and/or funders must approve the school's "charter," in which it lays out its mission, achievement goals and methods of assessment. This charter usually lasts for 3-5 years. In order to keep their charter, the schools are accountable to their founders and achievement goals or their charter can be revoked. Charters can be managed and/or funded by a variety of parties, from for-profit corporations to institutes of higher learning to non-profits to charter management corporations such as Edison Learning or the National Heritage Academies. Because the quality and popularity of charter schools can vary dramatically, admissions requirements are often different from school to school. High-performing and in-demand schools may require an application and interview but most schools determine admission based on availability or a random lottery system.

Magnet Schools:

Magnet schools are public schools that focus on a particular subject, vocation or curriculum. Some are set up by districts and only enroll students from that district or city while others may be set up by state governments and enroll students from all over the state. Most concentrate on a particular area of academic study or vocation such as science, the fine and performing arts, agriculture or mechanics. The admissions process at some magnet schools is very competitive, requiring an entrance exam, interview or audition. Others select students through a lottery system or accept all students who apply.

Private Schools

Religious Schools:

The majority of private schools in the U.S. are operated by religious affiliations or organizations. Most religious schools charge tuition and some may have requirements for prospective students related to a particular synagogue, parish or religion. While some schools are limited to members of a certain faith and include religious instruction in the curriculum, others are open to members of all faiths and have an entirely secular curriculum. Schools run the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) are often secular in nature. Because they do not receive any government funding, schools such as Yeshivas or Catholic parochial schools are not required to follow government regulations. Most religious schools provide an education that is similar in content and qualitatively equal to or better than local public schools, particularly because many students transfer between the two types of institutions.

Prep Schools:

Prep schools (or college preparatory schools) are funded by tuition fees and philanthropic donations and are overseen by a board of trustees, much like a college. Traditionally found the Northeast, prep schools may be day or boarding schools or have both day and boarding options. They are generally known for challenging academics and selective admissions processes and tend to send students on to elite colleges. Prep schools often have low student-teacher ratios and a variety of AP and advanced course options. Because of a traditional dedication to creating "well-rounded" individuals, many prep schools stress the importance of athletics in addition to academics and some require all students to participate in sports.

Independent/Alternative Schools:

Independent schools are entirely funded by tuition fees, donations, or endowments thus allowing it freedom in terms of instructional style, accountability, and curriculum. However, independent schools are accredited by the same agencies that accredit public schools. Some independent schools follow particular approaches to education, for example the Waldorf, Montessori or Sudbury schools while others follow a more traditional college-prep curriculum. Most provide smaller classes and rigorous (if sometimes unconventional) academics.

Boarding Schools:

Boarding schools are independent private schools at which some or all of the students live on the campus during the school year. Boarding schools are most common for students between the 7-12th grades, although there are some junior boarding schools for students in younger grades. Schools may have only boarding students or a combination of boarding and day students. Some schools offer military training or are focused on a particular subject such as the performing arts. Most boarding schools have competitive admissions requirements like entrance exams, auditions, or applications.