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 school choice 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 learning, homeschooling, and microschooling and mix-and-match learning.
Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in Illinois at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.
- Traditional Public Schools
- Public Charter Schools
- Public Magnet Schools
- Private Schools
- Online Schools
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 $18,316 per public school student each year? You can search your school’s spending and that of nearby schools at Project Nickel.
Illinois has limited open enrollment laws. In some cases, you can visit multiple schools and select the one best for you. Illinois families may be able to transfer schools within their district; they should check with their local district to see if this is an option. In general, Illinois families cannot transfer to public schools outside their district. In the limited cases where a transfer to another district is possible, families may be charged fees.
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. You can also learn more about Illinois open enrollment policies at “Public Schools Without Boundaries: A 50 State Ranking.”
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.
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. GoCPS is the online application platform for Chicago Public Schools families wanting to choose a school other than their neighborhood school.
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. Plus, 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.
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.
Private schools in Illinois 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 $7,851 for elementary schools and $12,661 for high schools. 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. This can help make private school tuition more affordable. Also, the state’s Invest in Kids Program is a scholarship currently serving low-income children, but the program is set to sunset in 2024.
If you live in Chicago and are looking for private school scholarship assistance, you may wish to check out the Big Shoulders Fund, the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund, LINK Unlimited, and HFS Chicago Scholars. Plus, if you are looking for assistance choosing between public and private options in Chicago, you may be interested in checking out the school choice navigation service Chicago School GPS.
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 may be able to take supplemental online courses or a full-time online program through their local school in partnership with Illinois Virtual Schools & Academy. Some schools and districts may pay course fees on behalf of their students.
Additionally, some individual Illinois schools, such as Naperville Community Unit School District 203, Chicago Public Schools, 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 School, The Keystone School, Excel High School, and K12 Private Academy, are also 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.
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 Microschools and Mix-and-Match Learning
Today, many Illinois families are mixing and matching school options to come up with new ways to personalize education. Microschools are one of these ways. A microschool refers to students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Microschools can take a variety of shapes and legal forms, from homeschoolers coming together at an enrichment center to a private school committed to small classrooms. What microschools share in common is a commitment to small-group learning and close-knit relationships, along with an emphasis on children as individual learners.
Here are a few real examples of microschools and related resources in Illinois:
At The Classroom microschool in Bartlett, students meet for 20 hours a week of customized learning.
Freestyle Learning Microschool in Chicago Heights operates as a dropoff and enrichment center for homeschooled children.
Kairos Patriot Academy is a microschool operating out of Testament of Love Church in Carpentersville, with Biblical and constitutional focuses.
In 2022, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services issued a memo encouraging families operating pods out of homes to become licensed.
Remember, microschooling is more a mentality than a specific legal distinction in most cases. Often, a family participates in a microschool while legally homeschooling, or being enrolled in a private or online school.
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