School choice: what are your options?

How much choice do you really have? It depends on your local school district as well as your state's policies on school transfers.

By GreatSchools Staff

School choice options available to parents have increased dramatically in recent years. There's a growing national sentiment that promoting competition in public education may spur schools to improve and that parents who invest energy in choosing a school will continue to be involved in their child's education.

How much choice do you have? It depends. The amount of choice varies from one school district to another, and varies from state to state. In most instances, it depends on supply and demand, and schools that are well regarded are generally in high demand. So if you are hoping to transfer your child to a popular school outside your home district, or a popular charter or magnet school, you may find it difficult.

What Are Your Options?

Your Neighborhood School

Generally, your first option is your neighborhood school. Each public school district sets up its own rules and boundaries for each school in the district, so it is best to check with your local district to find out which school your child will be assigned to, and what the rules are for attending charter schools, magnet schools, or other schools within or outside your local district. Be aware that school districts sometimes change the neighborhood boundaries for schools to balance enrollment, so don't assume that if you move in across the street from a school that your child will automatically go to that school. (Read more about public schools)

Charter Schools

One of the most significant changes in public education in recent years has been the growth of the charter school movement. Charter schools are public schools that are liberated from some of the traditional school regulations required by the state. These schools are bound by charter agreements granted by local school boards. If they don't meet the requirements of their charter, they can be shut down. Charter school enrollment is voluntary and is not governed by neighborhood boundaries, which means your child can choose to attend any charter school within your district, or outside your district, so long as there is space available. Schools that are in high demand usually have a lottery to determine who will be eligible to attend. (Read more about charter schools)

School Transfers

School districts generally set their own policies for intradistrict transfers (from one school in the district to another) and interdistrict transfers (to a school outside the district). Preferences are often given to children whose child care provider is near a particular school, or whose parents work in the city where the school is located. Most school districts have an appeals process if your request is denied. Space limitations often make transfers difficult, and each district's process has its own regulations, so be sure to check with your local district for specific requirements.

Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are another option offered by many school districts. Magnet schools generally have a particular focus, such as art or technology, or follow a different structural organization, such as mixing different grade levels within one classroom, or operating on a year-round schedule. Magnet schools are not governed by neighborhood boundaries; they draw students from throughout the school district and must accept students on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Alternative Schools

These are generally schools whose educational philosophies are different from traditional programs. Typically, alternative schools have small classes, a social and emotional development curriculum and a self-paced academic curriculum. This title is used officially as well as informally to describe a wide range of schools, so it's important to ask specific schools why they are classified as "alternative."

Private Schools

Private schools are schools that do not receive funding from the state. They set up their own criteria for admission. Families of the students pay tuition or, in some cases, students receive scholarships to attend. The teachers, principal, board of directors (and sometimes the parents and students) decide upon curriculum, teaching methodology and enrollment requirements. Private schools are not required to hire credentialed teachers or publish their test score results. (Read more about private schools.)

Homeschooling

Another option is for parents to teach their children at home instead of sending them to a public or private school. Each state has different laws governing homeschooling. Many communities have organizations that assist homeschooling families with curriculum and opportunities to meet other homeschoolers. (Read more about homeschooling.)