Type of School Choices, continued

In addition to providing parents with the option to transfer their children to schools outside their home attendance zone, states and districts provide a variety of school options for families. School Liaisons should determine which of these options are available in their particular communities and be prepared to share this information with families. These include:

Alternative Schools

These public schools offer alternative curriculum or school schedules for students with disciplinary problems or those who cannot function in a traditional school environment. Often, these schools provide an opportunity for high school students to meet their graduation requirements through a schedule that also allows students to work during the day. Many alternative schools opened in the 1970s as options for students “at risk” of failure in traditional schools; more opened in the 1990s for students who were expelled from schools under “zero-tolerance” policies for weapons or drug violations. There are more than 6,200 alternative schools in the United States; the largest number of alternative schools is in Texas.

Charter Schools

These are independent public schools designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders, education entrepreneurs, and others. An authorizing agency—often the school board but in some cases a university or a mayor—grants a school a charter to operate for a limited period of time. The authorizing agency monitors the school to ensure that it is fiscally sound and meets performance targets. The agency can grant an additional charter or shut the school down if it fails to meet its goals. Charter schools are open to any student who applies; however, in nearly all cases schools must hold a lottery to select students if it is oversubscribed. There are currently 5,453 charter schools in 40 states and the District of Columbia, which educate 1.7 million students, including a handful on military bases.

Magnet Schools

These are public schools designed to facilitate school desegregation by “attracting” students from outside the school’s neighborhood. Magnet schools often focus on a specific subject, such as science or the arts, or they provide programs for gifted and talented students. Some magnet schools require students to take an exam or demonstrate knowledge or skill in the specialty to gain admission. Magnet schools also conduct lotteries to select students if over-subscribed and employ other procedures to maintain racial balance.

Private Schools

About 10 percent of U.S. students attend private or nonpublic schools. About 80 percent of these schools are religiously affiliated. Other independent schools are based on a particular educational philosophy or approach to learning, such as Montessori or Waldorf schools. Students generally must apply for admission and pay tuition or fees to attend. Private and religious schools generally fall outside of Federal and state regulation, because they do not accept government funds; however, nonsectarian schools are prohibited from discrimination in admissions, and states can regulate their programs in areas such as health, safety, and teacher certification, as long as they do not impinge on the free exercise of religion or parents’ rights to direct the education of their children.


This is instruction offered in the home, usually by a child’s parent or guardian, which might include virtual learning programs conducted over the Internet and/or consortia of parents who collaborate to provide additional education options and support. About 1.5 million students were homeschooled in 2007, up from 850,000 in 1999. Most states have general guidelines about the grade-level program of study for students who are homeschooled to ensure they meet graduation requirements and are fully prepared for post-secondary options. These regulations need to be carefully regarded by parents if they want to ensure that their child will complete his or her education according to State regulations.

Virtual Schools

Virtual schools range from part-time supplemental courses that students take online in addition to their regular classroom courses to full-time online schools. Overall, about 700,000 students were enrolled in virtual schools in 2006, twice the number from 3 years before. Half the states operate statewide virtual schools, and many school districts also offer online courses. Some states are moving towards requiring online courses. For example, Michigan requires every student to take at least one online course to graduate. Virtual learning can be exclusively provided online or contain “blended” learning elements in which classes are delivered partially online with occasional face-to-face meetings as well. This option is particularly useful for students who need additional credits in order to graduate (i.e., credit recovery), for students seeking classes not offered in the local school, or for students who may not be able to attend face-to-face classes due to location, disability, or other reasons. Most students are enrolled in online courses at the high school level, but opportunities for elementary and middle school students are increasing.