Illinois School Choice Roadmap

By: National School Choice Week Team

Last Upated: January 19, 2023

Choosing a school? You’ve got options. 

Wondering about K-12 education choices in Illinois? You may have more options than you think. Understanding these options can help you confidently choose the school that best matches your child’s personality, strengths, and interests. Remember, each child is unique. So, the “best” school for your child may look different than the “best” school for your neighbor’s child. 

Finding a great school for you starts with knowing your options. In short, you can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, homeschooling, and learning pods.

Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in Illinois at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.

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Traditional public schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public charter schools do not charge tuition. They are usually managed by nonprofit organizations and do not require students to pass tests to enroll.
Public magnet schools do not charge tuition. They are managed by school districts and focus on themes, such as math, science, technology, and the arts.
Private schools charge tuition, but scholarships are often available via state programs or by individual schools. Private schools are privately managed and can be faith-based or secular.

      Illinois Traditional Public Schools

      First off, you can choose traditional public schools. They are operated by school districts, free to attend, open to all students, and funded by federal, state, and local government. Did you know that Illinois spends an average of $17,293 per public school student each year? You can search your school’s spending and that of nearby schools at Project Nickel.

      Illinois has fairly flexible open enrollment laws. “Open enrollment” allows families to choose public schools besides the one they are assigned to. Illinois parents may be able to choose any traditional public school within their district but should check with their local district to find out more. In general, Illinois families cannot transfer to public schools outside their district.

      For a real-world example of the transfer process, check out the application materials for intradistrict transfers in the Community Consolidated School District 15. Find out more about public schools in your state at the Illinois State Board of Education.

      Illinois Charter Schools

      Families in Illinois can also consider public charter schools. Illinois has more than 130 public charter schools, most of which are located in Chicago. These charter schools are free public schools that are typically open to anyone. About 85% of Illinois charter school students receive free or reduced lunch, and about 14% are enrolled in special education.

      Charter schools are distinct from traditional public schools in that they are allowed extra freedom to innovate while being held accountable for student achievement. 

      Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a language immersion program or offering a rigorous, literacy-based curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system is usually used to determine admittance. 

      For more information on charter schools in your Illinois, check out the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. The Illinois State Board of Education also has a charter school locator.

      Illinois Magnet Schools

      Magnet schools are free public schools that allow kids to focus on a specific theme, like STEM, Montessori, or the performing arts. If you have a magnet school near you with a theme that your child is interested in, that could be a good school choice for you.

      There are more than 100 magnet schools in Illinois. Many of these are concentrated in the Chicago Public Schools’ District; you can search for these by using the Chicago Public Schools search tool and filtering for magnet schools. Other districts, such as the Champaign Unit School District 4, Elgin Area Schools U-46, Evanston/Skokie School District 65, Rockford Public Schools and Decatur Public Schools have magnet schools or programs as well. Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), a residential academy for students in grades 10-12, is an option for students statewide. Students from more than 50 Illinois counties live on IMSA’s campus in Aurora.

      Illinois Private Schools

      Families in Illinois can also consider private schools, nonpublic schools that charge tuition. There are about 1,600 private schools across the state. These schools may offer a unique curriculum, smaller class sizes, or a faith-based tradition. 

      Illinois’s private schools come in all shapes and forms, from Montessori schools to schools designed for children with special needs. For instance, one private school we talked to, Plato Academy, uses a Socratic discussion method and mixed age group classes. This creates a unique learning environment that honors students’ individuality. Principal Marianthi Koritsaris described, “We don’t say, ‘Well you’re the sixth graders, you’re going to do this curriculum.’ They’re all immersed in the same curriculum. So each student, regardless of grade level, rises to all of the challenges of the curriculum based on their own individual abilities.”

      The average tuition for private schools in the state is $7,726 for elementary schools and $12,454 for high schools. In Illinois there are a couple of state-run scholarship programs, which can help make private school tuition more affordable for families. Low and middle income students may be eligible for the Invest in Kids Program. Meanwhile, Illinois’ Tax Credits for Education Expenses program allows families with students attending a private school (or homeschooling) to claim a credit for qualified expenses, like tuition or book fees.

      Learn more at the Illinois Coalition of Nonpublic Schools, the Catholic Conference of Illinois, and Private School Review: Illinois.

      Illinois Online Learning

      Whether your child wants to accelerate learning or needs a quieter environment, you may be interested in trying virtual school. Illinois students in grades 5-12 may be able to take supplemental online courses through their local school in partnership with the Illinois State Board of Education. Some schools and districts may pay course fees on behalf of their students. (Note that previously, online course enrollments took place through the Illinois Virtual School, but that program closed as of June 2022.)

      Additionally, some individual Illinois schools, such as Naperville Community Unit School District 203 and Cambridge Lakes Charter School, are developing their own online or hybrid classes for area students. So, you can always ask your district if you have any choices like these.

      Paid full-time online options, like George Washington University Online High SchoolThe Keystone School, Excel High School, and K12 Private Academy, are available to Illinois students, but they are not specific to the state. 

      To read more about online learning in Illinois, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.

      Illinois Homeschooling

      Homeschooling is another school choice in Illinois. Homeschooling is the process of parents educating students at home and is permitted in all 50 states. As technology and school choices have spread in Illinois, homeschooling has more support and resources than ever.

      In Illinois, the state does not require you to register your homeschool program or file a notice of your intent to homeschool. However, if you are withdrawing your child from another school, it is recommended that you inform the school of your decision so your student is not marked truant. If you later decide to return to public school, your child’s placement may be based on test scores, assessments, and samples of work.

      If you choose to homeschool, you are required to teach specific subjects (including language, science, and the fine arts) but specific standardized tests are not required. Your homeschooled child may enroll part time at a local public school and request to participate in sports and activities, but schools are not required by law to grant this request. Homeschooled students with special learning needs may be eligible for services and support from local school districts.

      Illinois offers a tax credit up to $750 for educational expenses, which homeschooling families can be eligible for. You can find a great introduction to homeschooling in Illinois at the Home School Legal Defense Association. You may also wish to check out Illinois State Board of Education’s Homeschooling page.

      Illinois Learning Pods

      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.

      Self-Directed 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 Illinois. Read more about the requirements for homeschooling and get tips from HSLDA.

      If your learning pod contains more than two families and will have parents or other teachers leading unique classes just for your school, it may qualify as a private school. You can read more about what Illinois classifies as a private school, how they’re regulated, and how to start one.

      The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has issued a memo encouraging families operating pods out of homes to become licensed. 

      Learning Support Pods:

      If your child is enrolled in an existing online school or local public, charter, or private school, and uses that school’s curriculum under the supervision of an adult in a learning pod, you do not need to register as a homeschool or private school. 

      A student celebrates school choice in Illinois

      Education Resources for Illinois Parents 

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


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