Home / Education / Articles / From charter schools to tax credit scholarships: School choice explained

The US education system teaches 49.4 million students as of fall 2020, according to the Department of Education. While most students go to the school assigned by their home address, others attend a school of their family’s choosing.

What is school choice?

Public school choice is based on the idea that public education dollars follow the student, not the school. This means if a student goes to a different public school outside their assigned district, the dollars needed to educate that student go with them to the new school. Public school choice has a variety of options, including magnet and charter schools.

Some states offer parents vouchers that provide public dollars for private education. Private schools are K-12 educational institutions that are paid for through tuition. Many private schools are religious while others are non-sectarian. About three-fourths of private schools have a religious affiliation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Parents can home-school their children. The laws on home-schooling differ between states.

Here’s how school choice programs work.

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are independently run schools that operate under different regulations than traditional public schools. They cannot charge tuition or affiliate themselves with a religious institution. Depending on the state, charter schools can have different teacher licensing requirements or hire educators with non-traditional backgrounds. Some charter schools also offer longer school days, science classes conducted in the field and other specialized curriculum, multilingual instruction, or Montessori-style education.

Most charter schools are sponsored by local and state organizations that monitor school quality and hold them accountable for their finances and academic results, according to the Department of Education.

Since charter schools are public schools, they must accept all applying students if there are spots  available. When applications outnumber open spots, most charter schools use a lottery to determine who gets in.

In the 2021–2022 school year, more than 3.6 million students attended 7,847 charter schools nationwide. Charter school enrollment increased by 1.9 million students between fall 2010 and fall 2021, according to the most recent government data. About 7.5% of all public school students attended charter schools that same school year.

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What are magnet schools?

Magnet schools operate within existing public-school districts and offer specialized curriculum and programs that are often unavailable in traditional schools. These can include subject-specific paths, such as science or art, vocational or focus on a particular career path. Magnet schools can be separate facilities or operate as a school-within-a-school, meaning a specialized program that shares the same building as a traditional public school.

Unlike community schools or charters, magnet schools are permitted to restrict enrollment. Some require students to take an entry exam, while others are open to all students who are interested in a program’s focused curriculum. Magnet schools can also use a lottery system when there are more applicants than available seats.

How many K-12 students are home-schooled?

Home-schooled children may be taught by a parent or tutor in person or virtually. States are responsible for regulating home-schooling, from how parents handle instruction plans to administering standardized tests.

New York’s Education Department requires all parents to submit a notice of intent to home-school, track attendance, test students annually, and provide an individualized home-school instruction plan to the state. The Florida Department of Education has fewer regulations. Parents can home-school with a private tutor, under a private school umbrella program[1] or teach on their own under Florida’s home-schooling statute.

The nation’s 1.46 million home-schooled children were 2.8% of all K-12 students enrolled in fall 2019, according to the Department of Education’s most recent data.

A separate dataset from the US Census Bureau shows that the number of homeschooled students increased during fall 2020 as COVID-19 limited in-person schooling. About 5.6% of households with school children reported homeschooling during fall 2020, doubling the number of households that started off homeschooling the previous year.

What is the scholarship tax credit and school voucher program?

States with school voucher programs allow parents to use money normally for use at their child’s education at their assigned public school to pay to attend private school instead.


K-12 voucher school programs by state, according to each state's Department of Education

How many states have scholarship tax credit programs?

Seventeen states give tax credits to individuals or companies who donate to a scholarship-granting organization. These donations provide students with private-school scholarships. Most scholarship grantees are students from low-income families or students attending a failing school.

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