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Charter school? Magnet school? What’s the Difference?



Across the United States, nearly 50 million students attend public school. Public schools are funded by local and state governments, as well as by the federal government, and are required to enroll students who are able to demonstrate that they reside within the school district’s attendance boundary (catchment zone). Attending public school is free, and a family’s local elementary, middle, and high schools are often near their home. In many districts, buses are provided for students who reside beyond a certain distance. Public schools are required to meet certain standards set forth by the state and local school boards, and teachers are required to be certified.


Beyond the traditional public school, there are two special kinds of public schools that may be of interest to families: charter schools and magnet schools. Magnet schools are permitted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, while 45 states and the District of Columbia allow charter schools. Both magnet and charter schools exist at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. If they are an option in your area, they may warrant consideration as the best option for your child.


Conceived over 30 years ago to allow educators to be more innovative and independent, charter schools are public schools that are privately run. They are typically funded by government money on a per-student basis, although some rely on both private and government funding. Charter schools are open to all students from a designated area; they do not charge tuition, nor do they require entrance exams, although there may be an application and/or lottery process to secure a place. Charter schools operate pursuant to the terms of a "charter"—a legislative contract—with a state or a local school board and must adhere to the terms of their charter in order to receive public funding. The charter outlines the school’s mission, academic goals, fiscal guidelines, and accountability requirements. A charter’s curriculum is flexible and often reflects a particular focus, such as arts or technology. Charter school faculty are not necessarily certified, but because they receive public funds, many charter schools do participate in state testing and federally mandated programs.


Magnet schools are just like traditional public schools in that they are regulated by the state and accountable to their state and local school boards. They are publicly funded, tuition-free, and have high academic standards. Magnets typically offer special programming such as STEM, the arts, world languages, or public service, and classes are usually smaller than they are at a traditional public school. Teachers are required to be certified by the state, and some may have specialized training in certain academic disciplines. Originally founded to support school desegregation, magnet schools are open to all students from the local school district and, at times, from other school districts as well. Magnet schools are typically highly regarded and, as such, in high demand. Students must apply to be admitted, and there are often entrance exams, interviews, and auditions for arts programs. A lottery is typical for admitted students, and waitlists are often long.


Whether your focus is on a traditional public school, a charter school, or a magnet school, a first step is to explore the school’s website to read their mission statement, learn about their curriculum and programming, as well as their admissions requirements and lottery process, so that you can determine which school offers the best fit for your child.


By Annemiek Young


Annemiek Young, Bennett Education Consultant, Director of Private Client Relations Emeritus, and good friend , is a regular contributor to our blog.


Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.






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