Guide to School Choice in California

By: National School Choice Week Team

Choosing a school? You’ve got options. 

Each spring, parents face one of the biggest decisions they can make for their child’s future: What school environment will their child will spend about 1,000 hours in next year? 

Making that decision with confidence starts with knowing your options; you may have more school choices than you realize. Understanding these options can help you find a school where your child grows and learns to the best of their ability. Remember, each child is unique. So, the “best” school for your child may be different than the “best” school for your neighbor’s child. That’s okay! 

In short, you can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling.

California residents rally for school choice by American flag

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California Traditional Public Schools

First off, most children in California attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers like you. California spends an average of $10, 281 per public school pupil each year

Open enrollment is an important form of public school choice; open enrollment refers to whether a state allows parents to send their children to schools outside of their district. In California, parents of students assigned to low-performing schools may be able to transfer their children to another school based on the state’s limited open enrollment laws. School districts in California can also set their own open enrollment policies, so parents can check with their local district to learn more. 

Different public schools may have different cultures and missions. For example, we recently spoke to Sonia Flores, the principal at California’s Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy, which was ranked in the top 50 public high schools in the United States. She told us that, while the school serves all students, its special mission is to support “students who are first in their family to go to college, or students who come from a low-income background who face obstacles that prevent them from being successful in a comprehensive high school setting.

California Charter Schools

Secondly, families in California have another tuition-free option in charter schools. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are public, free, and usually have no requirements for entry. What distinguishes charter schools is that they have extra freedom to innovate with learning methods. In addition, public charter schools are accountable to authorizing entities, such as colleges or school districts, for results. 

California has several hundred charter schools, which can be found in this school directory. Each charter has a particular focus and strives to fill a unique role in the local community. For example, this could be providing a STEAM program or a rigorous literacy program. When we interviewed the executive director of one of California’s largest charter schools, Granada Hills Charter School, we learned that the school serves students from 60 countries who, collectively, speak more than 40 languages!

student with yellow headphones works on laptop


California Magnet Schools

Depending on where you live in California, you may also be able to choose a magnet school. These free, public schools allow kids to focus on specific themes, like science or the performing arts. For the 2019-2020 school year, there were more than 170 magnet schools in California. If your child learns best by diving deeply into a subject he or she is passionate about, a magnet school could be a good fit. 

California Private Schools

In addition, you can consider private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. California’s private schools come in all shapes and forms. For instance, they may be religious schools, non-sectarian Montessori schools, or schools designed for children with learning differences. Effective in 2018, the federal government allows parents to save for K-12 private school tuition using tax-preferred 529 savings accounts. 

Private schools offer California families unique learning environments. One private school we talked to, for instance, Brethren Christian School, focuses on mentoring its students in a faith-based environment. At Valley View Adventist Academy, another faith-filled private school, we heard from a teacher who helped her students publish books.

Unfortunately, in California there are not currently any state-run scholarships to help families afford private school tuition.   

California Online Learning

Whether your child wants to accelerate his or her learning or needs a quieter environment in which to focus, you may be interested in giving virtual school a try. California offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like California Connections Academy and California Virtual Academies. While much of the learning is facilitated by technology, these learning programs offer in-person field trips and meet-ups as well. 

California Homeschooling

You can also choose homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home. Check out the California Homeschool Network for resources about homeschooling specific to California. As technology and school choices have spread in California, homeschooling is an increasingly popular choice with more support and resources than ever.

We recently spoke to the Cox Family, a California family that found that homeschooling was the best fit for one of their three children. As mom Erica Cox put it, finding the right school for your child requires being open to thinking outside the box: “If you want your kid to be a successful student, you need to find the right type of school and environment for them to thrive in. Don’t assume because it works for one [student] it will work for the others.”

California students hold school choice signs outside of school

Education Resources for California Parents

For additional information about school choices in California, visit these resources:

School Choice Celebrations in California

National School Choice Week 2021 will take place January 24 –30, 2021. We encourage all schools, homeschool groups, organizations and individuals to join the celebration. Click here for ideas, inspiration, and more information! 

California celebrated National School Choice Week 2020 with a record-breaking 2,868 events and activities across the state. Click the button below to learn more about school choice in California.

Visit State Page


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