It used to be that families in the public school system had little choice when it came to where their kids attended school. Magnet schools started in the 1960s as the result of districts addressing desegregation—they were designed to serve diverse groups and focus on specific academic specialties. Charter schools began with the goal of being more flexible in the early 1990s. Both types of schools gave families options—especially for families not in the position to pay for private schools.
Both charter and magnet schools are public schools that offer more flexible academic programs, but there are key differences in the way they are run and funded.
Magnet schools are held accountable by the state and local school board, just like traditional public schools. Also like public schools, they are funded by the state. Magnet schools are organized around a “theme” or area of interest—anything from performing arts to STEAM. For this reason magnet schools are great for families who know their child wants to specialize in a certain area. These schools have rigorous academic programs and highly competitive admissions—the admissions process can be based on grades, test scores, portfolios, or auditions.
Like magnet schools, charter schools are publicly-funded and tuition-free, but they are separate from district leadership and the board. Instead, charter schools operate through agreements called charters. For this reason, they have more flexibility in terms of curriculum and academic focus. They are still held accountable, though, depending on test scores to show their value and to renew their charter. The state laws that govern charter schools vary by state—according to NCES, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and West Virginia had no charter schools as of the 2019-2020 school year. Unlike magnet schools, charter schools do not require exams, interviews, or auditions. This does not mean, however, that they are always easy to get into: while they don’t use selective admissions, many high-performing charters use a lottery system. Many schools began to close the achievement gap—many charters maintain this core mission.
Because of the similarities between these two types of schools, they can often be confused. Both aim to serve kids with nourishing learning environments, and experts say the most important thing caregivers can do is find the right school for their child.