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Last Upated: March 17, 2021
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!
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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.
In California, parents can also request that the school they select through open enrollment provides transportation assistance.
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.”
Find out more about public schools in your state at California’s Department of Education.
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!
For more info about California charters, check out The California Charter Schools Association.
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. 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.
Depending on where you live in California, you may be able to choose a magnet school. For the 2021 school year, there are more than 500 magnet schools or programs in California. Districts with magnet schools include ABC Unified School District, Glendale Unified School District, Los Angeles Unified School District, the Napa Valley Unified School District, Pasadena Unified School District, San Diego Unified School District, and Vista Unified School District.
In addition, you can consider private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. There are more than 2,500 private schools across the state of California, and these schools offer families unique learning environments. For instance, private schools may be religious schools, non-sectarian Montessori schools, or schools designed for children with learning differences. One private school we talked to, 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.
The average tuition for private schools in the state is $14,732 per year, but keep in mind that schools often are more affordable at the elementary level than high school. Unfortunately, in California there are not currently any state-run scholarships to help families afford private school tuition. Privately-run scholarships may be available.
Learn more at the California Association of Private School Organizations, The BASIC Fund, and Private School Review: California.
California offers several free, full-time online learning options for students, like California Connections Academy and California Virtual Academies. K-12 students in Ventura, San Bernardino, Kern, and Orange counties can also consider IQ Academy-Los Angeles. While much of the learning is facilitated by technology, these learning programs offer in-person field trips and meet-ups as well. Additionally, students in grades 9-12 needing additional academic support to overcome obstacles may wish to consider Insight Schools of California. Students in the Los Angeles area can also choose IQ Academy California.
You can also check out: California Parents for Public Virtual Education.
As of December 2020, all grades at California Virtual Academies, California Connections Academy, Insight Schools of California, and IQ Academy California are currently full.
At California Connections Academy, one computer per household and an internet subsidy may be requested. At California Virtual Academies, a computer and wifi stipend may be available. Both Insight Schools of California and IQ Academy California provide computers if the student qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
You can also choose homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home. In California, the state requires notice of your intent to homeschool if you are homeschooling as a home-based private school between October 1 -October 15 of each year. It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your current school so that your student is not marked truant. In the case that you want to switch back to public school in the middle of the school year, your school may require records and placement testing. Some public schools may not accept the credits you have received while homeschooling.
California may have funding assistance available if you homeschool through a charter homeschool program. Check out the California Homeschool Network for more resources about homeschooling specific to California.
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.”
Micro-schools, pods, pandemic pods, and learning pods all refer to the same concept: students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Pods themselves can take a variety of legal forms, but in general they can be separated into two categories: self-directed pod (homeschool, homeschool collaborative, or micro-school) and learning support pod. It’s important to understand what kind of pod you are signing up for and the requirements that go along with it. Learn more about learning pods.
If your learning pod or micro-school is choosing its own curriculum and each family is directing their own children’s schooling, it likely qualifies as a homeschool in California. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA here.
If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it may qualify as a private school. You can read more about what California classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.
If your child is going to be enrolled in remote learning through your local public school and supervised by an adult in your learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school. Keep in mind that you have multiple online learning options, including two permanent, full-time online schools that are available to K-12 students statewide. In some areas, like San Francisco, libraries and other community centers have been transformed into learning pod-like hubs to support students who are distance learning.
For additional information about school choices in California, visit these resources:
National School Choice Week 2022 will take place January 23 – 29, 2022. We encourage all schools, homeschool groups, organizations and individuals to join the celebration. Check out ideas, inspiration, and more information!
California celebrated National School Choice Week 2021 with 2,104 virtual events and activities across the state. Click the button below to learn more about school choice in California.
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