The US education system teaches 53.1 million K-12 students as of 2018, according to the US Census Bureau. While most students go to the school assigned by their home address, others attend a school of their family’s choosing.

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 goes with them to the new school. Public school choice has a variety of options, from public magnet or charter schools.

Some states offer parents vouchers, which use 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 public schools that operate under different regulations than traditional public schools. Charter schools cannot charge tuition or be affiliated with a religious institution, but, depending on the state, have flexibility to hire teachers with non-traditional backgrounds or have different licensing requirements. Some charter schools also offer longer school days, specialized curriculum such as science classes conducted in the field, instruction in multiple languages, or Montessori-style education.

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

Charter schools are public schools and must accept all applying students if there are available spots at the school. Most charter schools use a lottery to determine who gets the available seats when applications outnumber open spots.

In the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 7,500 charter schools served over 3 million students nationwide. Public charter school enrollment increased by 1.7 million students between fall 2009 and fall 2018, according to the most recent government data. About 6.5% of all public school students attended charter schools.

Public charter school enrollment increased by 1.7 million students between fall 2009 and fall 2018.

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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 not available in traditional schools, including subject-specific, such as with 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 through a virtual program. States are responsible for regulating home-schooling, from how parents handle instruction plans to how standardized tests are administered.

For example, 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.

As of 2019, the nation’s 1.7 million home-schooled children were  3.23% of all K-12 students, according to the Department of Education.

The number of homeschooled students significantly increased during fall 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person schooling, according to the US Census Bureau. About 5.6% of households with school-aged children reported homeschooling during fall 2020, doubling the number of households who started off the previous school year homeschooling.

What is a school voucher?

States with school voucher programs allow parents to use public money to pay for part or all of the cost to attend a private school. The public money would normally be used for the child’s education at their assigned public school.

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

How many states have tax credit scholarship programs?

Seventeen states give a tax credit to individuals or companies who donate to a scholarship-granting organization. These donations provide students with private school scholarships. The most common scholarship grantees are students from low-income families, those attending a failing school or students with rules for these programs differ by state.

To learn more about K-12 public and private school enrollment, see USAFacts’; K-12 education metrics.

[1]

An umbrella school is an alternative education institution that oversees the homeschooling of children to fulfill state government educational requirements.