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How does school choice work in California?

California offers parents several options for school choice beyond traditional neighborhood public schools. The main options are charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, and homeschooling.

What are the different school choice options in California?

The main school choice options in California are:

  • Charter schools – Public schools operated independently from school districts
  • Magnet schools – Public schools with a specialized curriculum or instructional approach
  • Private schools – Schools that are funded through tuition payments and private donations
  • Homeschooling – Educating children at home under the supervision of parents

California has over 1,200 charter schools, attended by over 600,000 students statewide. There are around 260 magnet schools in California. Private schools enroll around 565,000 students. And around 250,000 students are homeschooled in the state.

How do charter schools work?

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are allowed flexibility and autonomy in their operations. They function independently from the rules and regulations of traditional school districts. Charter schools are authorized by school districts, county boards of education, or the state board of education.

Charter schools are open to all students residing in the district or county that authorized the charter. If there are more applicants than seats available, a random public lottery is used to determine enrollment. Charter schools cannot discriminate or require entrance exams for admission.

Charter schools receive public funding based on student attendance, similar to traditional public schools. They cannot charge tuition or levy taxes. Most charter schools are non-unionized and not subject to teacher tenure rules. Charter schools hire their own teachers and staff, control their own budgets, and set their own curriculum, instruction methods, and schedules.

Types of charter schools

There are several types of charter schools in California:

  • Start-up charters – New independent schools with their own boards and non-profit status
  • Conversion charters – Existing traditional public schools that converted to charter status
  • Classroom-based charters – Programs within non-charter public schools focused on personalized learning
  • Non-classroom-based charters – Programs without daily on-site instruction, like independent study

Charter school authorization

To open a charter school in California, organizers must submit a detailed petition to a local school district, county board of education, or the California State Board of Education. The petition must include:

  • Educational program, goals, and curriculum
  • Measurable student outcomes
  • Assessment methods
  • Governance and operations plan
  • Financial plan and policies
  • Facilities plan
  • impacted districts

The authorizing entity reviews the petition against the criteria in state charter laws. If approved, a charter is granted for 5 years. The school must seek renewal to continue operating after the term expires. Authorizers are responsible for oversight and can revoke a charter for violations or failure to meet academic goals.

How do magnet schools work?

Magnet schools are public schools that offer specialized courses or academic focuses, often with high standards for admissions. Common magnet school specializations include STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), performing arts, career-technical education, and International Baccalaureate.

Magnet schools are intended to encourage voluntary racial integration by drawing diverse groups of students with specialized curricula. School districts establish magnet schools and programs to foster integration and provide choice. Magnet schools are tuition-free like other public schools.

Magnet schools have selective admissions based on certain criteria, which may include prior academic performance, interviews, auditions, or entrance exams. Acceptance rates vary greatly by school. Magnet schools strive for racial diversity, but cannot use race as the sole factor for admission.

Funding for magnet schools comes from the normal per-pupil allocations and additional specialized program grants. Magnet schools must provide transportation for students outside the regular attendance zone. Students within the zone often get preference in lottery-based admissions.

Examples of magnet schools

Prominent magnet school programs in California include:

  • University High School – Los Angeles (LAUSD) – College prep, 100% graduation rate
  • Lowell High School – San Francisco – Competitive academic magnet, 99% graduation rate
  • Oakland School for the Arts – Performing and visual arts programs
  • Middle College High School – San Bernardino – Partnership with valley college, 95% graduation rate

How do private schools work?

Private schools are educational institutions that are funded through private sources like tuition, donations, and private grants. Private schools are operated outside the public school system, though they still must meet state standards and acquire state accreditation.

California state law requires private schools to file an affidavit with the state Department of Education and comply with laws related to health, safety, and minimum educational standards. They are not required to grant diplomas or report data on enrollment, test scores, or graduation rates.

There are over 3,000 private schools in California, providing various religious and secular education options. 60% of private schools have a religious orientation or purpose. The average private school tuition is around $13,000 per year for day schools and $27,000 for boarding schools in California.

Private school admissions are determined by the individual schools, which generally have selective acceptance policies and may screen potential students via testing, interviews, recommendations, and review of records. Private schools set their own curriculum, classes, scheduling, and requirements for graduation.

Types of private schools

There are several types of private schools in California:

  • Religious schools – Affiliated with specific faiths or religious institutions, like Catholic and Jewish day schools.
  • Non-sectarian schools – Not affiliated with any particular religion or church.
  • Preparatory schools – Focus intensively on preparing students for college admissions.
  • Specialty schools – Offer specific focus areas, like arts, tech, or military school.
  • Therapeutic schools – Serve students with special behavioral or emotional needs.
  • Montessori schools – Use Montessori educational methods and curriculum.
  • Waldorf schools – Based on Rudolf Steiner’s teaching methods.
  • International schools – Provide foreign nationals education in English with international curricula.

How does homeschooling work?

Homeschooling involves parents taking primary responsibility for providing formal education to their children at home or through independent study. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states, but regulations vary widely between states.

To homeschool in California, parents must file a private school affidavit with the state Department of Education. No other notification or approval is required. Around 3% of K-12 students in California are homeschooled.

Parents may teach the children themselves or work with private tutors, online programs, or small cooperative groups. Most homeschooling families customize curriculum to their children’s needs and interests.

Homeschooled students are exempt from most state educational requirements, including instructional time and subject matter standards. Parents are responsible for setting curriculum and issuing diplomas. Homeschoolers can participate in public school sports, classes, and extracurricular activities on a part-time basis.

Standardized testing is not required, but many homeschool families choose to have their children take tests like the SAT, ACT, GED, and AP exams for college applications. Studies show homeschoolers generally score above average on standardized assessments.

Reasons for homeschooling

Common reasons parents choose to homeschool in California include:

  • Customizing education to fit their child’s learning needs
  • Providing religious or moral instruction
  • Dissatisfaction with the school environment
  • Belief they can better educate at home
  • Dealing with special needs, medical issues, or bullying
  • Scheduling flexibility
  • Enabling accelerated or remedial learning

What are the benefits of school choice?

Research shows that increasing school choice and options can have a range of benefits, including:

  • Increased competition and innovation between schools
  • Higher academic outcomes and graduation rates
  • More diversity in school types to match student needs
  • Improved parental satisfaction and involvement
  • Enhanced school accountability through market forces

Giving parents options allows them to select schools aligned with their child’s abilities, interests, values, and learning styles. Alternative school models like charters and magnets can foster innovation. Expanding choice aims to create a dynamic educational marketplace.

What are the criticisms and challenges of school choice?

School choice also faces various criticisms and questions, such as:

  • Allowing increased racial/socio-economic segregation between schools
  • Difficulty accessing reliable information to assess school options
  • Concerns about public funding going to private/religious schools
  • Selective admissions favoring high-achieving students
  • Lack of consistent accountability measures for some schools
  • Over-emphasis on school choice versus improving existing neighborhood schools

There are also logistical issues like lack of transportation making access difficult. Critics argue more focus should be placed on addressing inequities and disadvantages in the traditional public school system. There are ongoing debates around the appropriate level of public spending and support for alternative school choice options.

How is school choice funded in California?

Most public school choice options like charters and magnet schools receive the standard per-pupil funding allocation from the state. In 2022-23, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) base rate is $10,215 per student.

Charter schools also receive additional “categorical” funding if they take on certain responsibilities like special education, teacher training, transportation, school meals etc. Outside grants provide added funding for some magnet programs.

Private schools rely primarily on tuition payments and private donations or endowments. Affordable private schools or those serving disadvantaged groups may receive state or federal grants. Homeschooling receives no public funding, relying solely on parents’ teaching or purchases.

Proposition 30 passed in 2000 authorized $50 million annually from California state lottery funds to go toward charter facilities. Some districts or public college sponsors provide charter schools surplus public facilities for reduced rent.

School voucher programs

Some states have school voucher programs that allow parents to use public funds towards private school tuition. California does not have a traditional voucher program or education savings accounts. In 2022, a proposed voucher initiative failed to qualify for the ballot.

California does have some small voucher-style programs that provide state funding for specific students to attend private schools, including:

  • SB 740 – Vouchers for abandoned, abused, or neglected youth in foster care
  • SB 344 – Vouchers for children of deceased/disabled military members
  • AB 1871 – Vouchers for resident students in hospital schools

These specialized voucher programs are quite restricted in scope, targeting individual groups. Broader voucher programs have not passed the state legislature due to opposition from teachers unions and separation of church/state concerns.

How do parents research and select schools in California?

California parents can use the following resources when researching school choices for their children:

  • – School ratings, reviews, and comparisons for public, charter, private and preschools.
  • California Department of Education – School directory and performance data.
  • Public school locator – Find neighborhood zone schools.
  • – Searchable directory of charter schools.
  • – Database of private schools with parent reviews.
  • Campus tours and open houses – Visit schools firsthand.
  • Parent discussion forums – Ask local parent networks for recommendations.

Important factors for parents to consider include academic quality, school culture, class size, resources, extracurriculars, values/priorities, location, and cost. Visiting schools and talking to administrators, teachers, students and other parents can provide insightful information.


California aims to provide families with a range of school choices through public charter and magnet schools, private schools, homeschooling, and open enrollment policies. Parents can choose schools suited to their child’s needs, interests, and values.

Charter schools offer more independence and innovation compared to traditional public schools. Magnet schools focus on specializations like the arts, STEM or college prep. Private schools provide religious instruction or intensive academics often at high cost. Homeschooling allows customization and flexibility.

Debates continue around optimal school choice policies and funding. Overall, California’s school choice initiatives strive to foster healthy competition and expand quality options in the state’s K-12 education system.